Makeup of Obama Energy Team Signals Break with Bush

In announcing his energy team, President-elect Barack Obama seemed to take a not-very-subtle swipe at the Bush administration. Obama did so in introducing Steven Chu, his designate for energy secretary, invoking a frequent complaint of critics — that Bush and his team have neglected science in favor of politics and ideology, and been slow to act on global warming.

Obama said this evening in Chicago that Chu’s appointment would “send a signal to all that my administration will value science, make decisions based on facts and understand that facts require bold action.”

Indeed, Obama’s team — excluding anyone with any expertise in oil — seemed to be a repudiation of Bush’s fossil fuel-centered energy policy. In addition to Chu, Obama named Lisa Jackson, the former head of New Jersey’s state environmental agency, as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Energy and Environment Nancy Sutley as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Chu is the star of this bunch — he is a Nobel Prize laureate in physics. Yet an energy expert whose opinion I’ve come to trust over many years says that the real power will reside in the White House, and in particular Carol Browner, named to hold the new White House post of energy and climate czar. Browner was EPA administrator under former President Bill Clinton. Still, questions have been raised as to how much true influence Browner will enjoy in a White House filled with heavyweights with perhaps competing agendas.

On the light side, Lynn Yarris, the bundle of enthusiasm and science know-how who serves as Chu’s spokesman at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, says no one at Berkeley — with the possible exception of Chu’s wife — even knew that he was interviewing for the energy post.

Chu was in London at the time word started filtering out last week regarding the appointment, and went incommunicado. Yarris said at the time that if the talk was true, Chu was so low-key when they spoke, that he must be the best poker player he had ever encountered.

The Berkeley lab has planned a celebration for Chu on Thursday, but given the arc of events, Yarris isn’t sure Chu will be back in town for it.

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