x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Steven Chu: a Nobel calling for a green future

The US energy secretary and Nobel Prize winner shares the views of Gulf fuel producers as far as the oil market is concerned. But at the end of his transformation from physicist to policymaker, his long-term objectives are on a different path.

The top energy official from the world's biggest energy-consuming country flew into Gulf capitals this week, armed with an academic PowerPoint presentation on climate change and a "no comment" on oil markets.

Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who is now the US energy secretary, donned his diplomatic hat this week to tell the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar that they have nothing to fear from a greener America that imports less oil. Mr Chu has been widely described as the most technically qualified energy secretary to hold the job. He won his Nobel Prize in 1997 for using lasers to slow the movement of individual atoms to study their nuclei, but since then he has also become an increasingly vocal expert on energy policy and climate change.

When the US President Barack Obama picked him for the top energy post in December 2008, he was the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, one of the country's most famous energy labs, where one of the projects involved making liquid fuels directly from sunlight to replace crude oil. Mr Chu played up his professorial side on Wednesday night in an address to university students in the Emirates Palace.

In a 45-minute lecture on climate change and renewables, he did not shrink from being too thorough, presenting measurements of the energy intensity of solar flares and the efficiency of curved building ventilation systems. Mr Chu compared the fuel efficiency of a Boeing 777 with the bar-tailed godwit, a bird that migrates across the Pacific Ocean, and used a bald patch on his head as a visual aid to describe the melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

The energy secretaries of administrations past have used their bully pulpit to lobby OPEC to increase oil production and bring down prices, but Mr Chu pointedly declined to do so publicly. Instead, he curried favour with OPEC producers by repeatedly declining to comment on current oil prices at US$80, which is high by historic standards, brushing off suggestions of an imminent peak in global oil production and suggesting that Wall Street speculators bore the brunt of blame for volatile swings in prices.

The visit underscored Mr Chu's 10-year transformation from esoteric physicist to policy pedant to politician. Hounded by question after question about oil markets, he steered the conversation to renewable energy and energy efficiency, which he said would help define the US-Middle East relationship of the future. "These are common interests to develop these two things, so I think it's a deepening and diversification of interests," Mr Chu said. "It started with oil and gas, but many countries in the region are seeing the need to diversify."

He has led the Obama administration's strategy to shift the country away from all fossil fuels, including oil, but he has also made it his mission to forge compromises to keep fossil fuel producers on his side. Against the objections of some environmentalists, he has embraced both nuclear power and carbon capture and storage; the latter being a technology favoured by OPEC and coal producers that allows power plants to divert their emissions from the smokestack to permanent underground storage.

Dr Sultan al Jaber, the chief executive of Masdar, Abu Dhabi's clean energy firm, stressed those common interests on Wednesday in his introduction of Mr Chu. Masdar plans to invest billions of dollars in an emirate-wide carbon capture network, and has lobbied for the technology to be included in UN funding schemes. "The alignment of our two nations is most evident in the area of energy, where we share similar challenges and similar objectives," Dr al Jaber said. "In order to combat climate change, we both understand the importance of energy efficiency and alternative sources of energy, including clean fossil fuels and peaceful nuclear energy."

Under Mr Chu's leadership, the Obama administration restarted funding for a carbon-capture power project in Illinois, and steered almost $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in grants to three private projects. The department of energy also announced $8.3bn in loan guarantees to nuclear reactors in Georgia, and proposed tripling guarantees to $54bn next year. "This administration, at first it wasn't thought that they were pro-nuclear, but they have done so much for this industry just in the last few months, because of climate change and jobs," says Lisa Steward, a senior director at the industry lobby group Nuclear Energy Institute.

Last month, Mr Chu cautiously endorsed the continued drilling of shale natural gas reservoirs, which has reversed a long-term decline in US gas production. Critics have called for more regulations of shale gas drilling, blaming it for the contamination of water supplies. But even with these concessions, Mr Chu could hardly be considered a supporter of the fossil fuel industry. In a speech in California in 2007, when he was still in the academic world, he famously described the rapid growth of coal, which emits more carbon emissions than oil or gas, as his "worst nightmare".

"We have lots of fossil fuel; that's really good and bad," he said at the time. "We won't run out of energy, but there's enough carbon in the ground to really cook us." Some conservatives saw the quote as evidence that Dr Chu would harm the fossil fuel industry. They include the Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, who has repeatedly called climate change a hoax. "Equally worrisome is Chu's call for raising America's gas taxes to European levels," Mr Inhofe said in a statement last year. "Rather than threaten the nation's economic security, the department of energy must promote policies to power this machine we call America."

Mr Chu's stance is still that carbon capture may offer a long-term solution for coal's emissions, but regular coal plants will have to go. In his personal life, he practises what he preaches. He does not own a car, having preferred to cycle to work at his job in California. When he moved to Washington at the start of last year, he told interviewers, he immediately changed his shower heads to save water.

Today, Mr Chu is driven around Washington by bodyguards. At the Emirates Palace, a Masdar Institute student asked him about whether he had been able to have a greater impact on the world's energy challenge as a leading scientist, or a policymaker. "Thank you for an easy question. It's my current position by far," he replied. Mr Chu and OPEC may share views on the oil market, but their long-term perspectives diverge. He has championed new biofuels that could displace petrol and diesel.

One of Mr Obama's first moves on taking office was to tighten the fuel efficiency standards for cars and 4x4s in the US and introduce more biofuels, which he said would cut total oil consumption by 1.8 billion barrels after 2016. The move followed Mr Obama's campaign pledge to invest $15bn a year over 10 years to be "free of dependence on Middle Eastern oil". Mr Chu this year proposed eliminating most tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, a move industry said would raise its costs by $80bn.

Thanks to the government policy changes and other trends in the US economy, it has become an article of faith among many experts that US oil consumption will never again return to its pre-crisis levels. cstanton@thenational.ae