A closer look at Obama's judges, federal agencies, and his approach to science and secrecy

  • The Bush administration listed the polar bear as a "threatened" species in 2008, and last year, pressured by a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, the Obama administration designated 120 million acres of critical habitat -- mostly sea ice. Regardless, climate change is shrinking the sea ice. Some environmentalists say this administration missed an opportunity to bring the discussion of climate change to the forefront when it declined to upgrade the listing from threatened to endangered.

    Martha de Jong-Lantink, cc via Flickr
  • Energy Secretary Steven Chu makes a presentation on “Building a Sustainable Energy Future” in December at the United Nations climate change conference in Cancún.

    Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images
  • Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (right) and U. S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., listen to public comments at a meeting on healthy forests in Deer Lodge, Montana, last March.

    USDA
 

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Department of Energy

Background The Energy Department's nearly $30 billion budget funds research on new energy sources, grid modernization and transmission projects. The DOE also safeguards energy-associated nuclear materials.

Bush's first Energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, was a former senator who once voted to abolish the agency; the second, Samuel Bodman, served in the departments of Commerce and Treasury but showed little interest in energy. Both effectively carried out Bush's policy, which subsidized oil and gas and promised loan guarantees for nuclear power but offered little support for renewable energy.

By contrast, Obama's Energy secretary, Steven Chu, has a sterling pedigree in alternative energy research and experience in the energy sector, as well as a Nobel Prize: He pioneered a method of trapping and cooling atoms with lasers. He's also a skilled scientific interpreter for the lay audience: During the December climate conference in Cancún, Mexico, Chu spoke about the deep science of carbon monitoring, explaining with startling clarity how molecular physics can separate anthropogenic fossil-fuel carbon in the atmosphere from the kind that, for instance, is emitted by an exhaling human.

The struggle Chu has gone on record as pro-nuclear energy, but under his watch DOE stalled nuclear waste storage at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, and the 2011 budget request effectively closes the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. The small fossil-energy research budget has been refocused on carbon capture and storage research.
Meanwhile, DOE is moving aggressively on clean energy: The 2011 budget request includes a 22 percent increase in solar energy investment and a 53 percent increase for wind. In December, DOE approved a $1.45 billion guaranteed loan for Spanish developer Abengoa's Solana solar-thermal project -- a "parabolic trough" design that uses the sun to heat a liquid and spin a turbine. Solana will occupy degraded land -- former alfalfa fields near Gila Bend, Ariz. -- and store energy through the night in molten salt.

Chu's Energy Department also secured $400 million in stimulus grants for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E, which Congress created as part of the America COMPETES Act of 2007 but never before funded. ARPA-E promotes "creative, out-of-the-box, transformational" ways to produce low-carbon domestic energy; its flagship projects include a collaboration among Rutgers University, MIT and UCLA to develop a recyclable electrochemical vehicle fuel; an effort by 1366 Technologies to slash the cost of manufacturing solar panels; and a drilling technology that Littleton, Colo.-based Foro Energy hopes will penetrate the basement rocks of geothermal energy fields.

On the horizon Obama has appointed a panel to look into the nuclear waste problem, and has a government-industry collaboration investigating ways to mitigate coal emissions. ARPA-E's funding, however, is in peril: Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, who now heads the House Science and Technology Committee, says ARPA-E is already "heavily drowned in money." Obama obliquely defended the investment in his State of the Union speech, but left out the best argument: ARPA-E's cousin, the Defense Department's ARPA, or DARPA, developed the original networks that seeded the Internet.

by Judith Lewis Mernit

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Obama’s record on Western environmental issues
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