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Chu Clarifies His Coal Views (sort Of.)

The confirmation hearings for Steven Chu, Obama's pick for energy secretary, are going on this morning before the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee. Sure enough, Byron Dorgan asked Chu about his now-infamous "coal is my worst nightmare" quote from 2007, captured for posterity on Youtube. Chu explained to the committee that if the world continued to build and operate coal-burning plants at its current rate, then, yes, the effects on climate would be horrific—a nightmare, you might say.

But, he added, two-thirds of the world's coal reserves are concentrated in the United States, Russia, China, and India, and even if we stopped burning coal, he argued that it's doubtful the other three countries will abandon it. So, he argued, it's "imperative to use coal as cleanly as possible," and said that he was optimistic as a scientist that it was possible to develop the technology to safely sequester carbon emissions. That's more sanguine than his earlier quip that, "It's not guaranteed that we have a solution for coal." No word on whether carbon sequestration could be more cost-effective than other clean-energy sources, which is really the key question here. 

Anyway, Wyoming Senator John Barrasso pinned Chu down further, asking how much of a priority he'd make carbon sequestration research, given that there's only so much federal money to go around. Chu said that efficiency should be the Energy Department's top priority, and that California should be a model, since doing things like conservation and the offloading of energy at peak times was the easiest, cheapest way to forestall the need to build new plants in the first place. After that, Chu said, DOE would focus on "bringing technology along as quickly as possible."

So there's no word on whether, for instance, Chu would look to restart funding for DOE's FutureGen project, a $1.8 billion pilot program intended to build a zero-emission "clean coal" plant in Illinois that was eventually abandoned by the Bush administration. (Obama has talked about reviving the project.) Chu also said he opposed a moratorium on new coal-fired plants that can't sequester their emissions, something both Al Gore and NASA scientist James Hansen have explicitly called for as a necessary step to prevent a dangerous rise in emissions.

--Bradford Plumer