President-elect Obama is expected to soon name his top energy and environment officials, consisting of an eminent physicist and energy specialist to head the Department of Energy, a former top New Jersey official as EPA administrator, and a former EPA administrator and close confidante of Al Gore as his chief White House adviser on climate and energy. Collectively and individually, the appointments send a message that Obama means business. Plainly, he has picked people who know their jobs and can hit the ground running.
Physicist Stephen Chu will not be the first scientist to head DOE, but he will be the first Nobelist, which itself sends a message. The son of Chinese immigrants, Chu comes from a family in which every member has been more accomplished than the next, exhibiting an aggregate achievement motivation thatâ''s off the charts. After studying at Rochester and the University of California, Berkeley, and teaching briefly at Berkeley, Chu joined Bell Laboratories in 1978. At that time Bell Labs was still the undisputed top laboratory in the world in physical science, a place where â''the joy and excitement of doing science permeated the halls,â'' as he said in his Nobel autobiography. In 1983 he became head of the quantum electronics research department at Bell, and soon embarked, with Art Ashkin at AT&Tâ''s Holmdel lab, on a program of experimentation that led to their devising a method of cooling and trapping atoms with laser beams. In 1987 Chu left Bell Labs for Stanford, and in 2004 he became director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.
Itâ''s Chuâ''s leadership of LBL thatâ''s of really decisive importance. The laboratory is a world leader in research on green technology, energy policy, and climate, which means that Chu already knows what works, whatâ''s plausible, and what could work some day. He will be able to start adjusting R&D priorities accordingly, as soon as heâ''s in office. Chu was a member of the blue ribbon advisory group that suggested creating a counterpart to ARPA at DOE, ARPA-E.
The rather flashy Chu has been stealing most of the thunder in most initial reports on Obamaâ''s energy team, but the other appointees also are not chopped liver, as we say in New York City. Lisa P. Jackson served as New Jerseyâ''s top environmental official and, most recently, as Governor Corzineâ''s chief of staff. During her years with the state government, New Jersey distinguished itself by implementing an exemplary system of reverse electricity metering and by facing difficult energy issues squarely in the eye.
As reported today in The Washington Post, Jackson â''grew up in the Ninth Ward [of New Orleans], the poor and largely black neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Jackson's mother, stepfather and godmother fled the city as the 2005 storm approached. A few months later, in her swearing-in speech as New Jersey's environmental chief, Jackson said the devastation wrought by Katrina put her environmental work in a new perspective.â'¿ Environmentalists in New Jersey describe Jackson as a pragmatic but consistent ally who has pushed Corzine to adopt a greener stance during his time in office. In the summer of 2007, Corzine signed the Global Warming Response Act, an ambitious climate measure that pledges to cut the state's greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.â''
Nancy Sutley, who will head the Council on Environmental Quality, brings similar credentials from California, where she has served in a succession of senior-level jobs involving energy and the environment. But CEQ is a relatively modest operation and so Sutley will likely play second fiddle to Carol Browner, the former EPA chief who will be Obamaâ''s White House adviser on energy and climate, in a newly created position. Of the nominees and appointees, Browner is the most controversial. Though capable, well informed, and aggressive, she came under criticism in the Clinton years for unnecessarily politicizing EPA and EPA policy, including from people within EPA.