Expected Chu departure sparks second-term speculation

Source: Nick Juliano, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, November 2, 2012

No matter who wins the White House next week, Steven Chu is widely expected to soon book a one-way ticket back to California, sparking heightened speculation over who may be tapped to take over after his embattled term leading the Department of Energy if President Obama is re-elected.

Chu has not announced his plans, and a DOE spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment. But it is all but impossible to find anyone in Washington energy circles who thinks he will be sticking around if Obama wins re-election, after four years facing sharp criticism over nearly everything in DOE’s portfolio, especially the loan guarantee program.

“The working assumption by many here is that Secretary Chu will move back to California,” said one energy policy expert who works with the administration and asked not to be identified. “That’s completely understandable; he’s accomplished a heck of a lot in four years in Washington, particularly for someone more accustomed to the warmer and friendlier climes in California.

Supporters of the energy secretary say he has been unfairly maligned by congressional Republicans who have homed in on the handful of failed loan guarantee recipients, most notably the bankrupt solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, while ignoring companies that have succeeded after receiving DOE loan guarantees and other efforts within the department to boost clean energy research and development.

“Steven Chu is going to be a difficult act to follow because there’s never been such a prominent scientist as secretary of Energy,” said Daniel Weiss, a clean energy expert at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Chu’s background as a Nobel Prize-winning physicist made him one of the most credentialed DOE heads. But he seemed ill-prepared to deal with some of the more rough-and-tumble aspects of Washington, where facing hours of grilling from hostile members of Congress is as much a part of the job as keeping up with the latest developments coming out of DOE’s labs.

Obama is likely to tap someone with more of a political background to replace Chu, who is expected to announce his departure before the end of the year, several policy experts said in recent interviews.

Among the top people being mentioned as possible candidates to take over as next Energy secretary are former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan (D), whose post-congressional activities include an association with the Bipartisan Policy Center, where he has focused on energy policy (Greenwire, Jan. 19); former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D); Center for American Progress President John Podesta, who was President Clinton’s chief of staff and head of Obama’s transition team; and Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, who was a key industry supporter of the Obama administration’s efforts to address climate change and helped lure the 2012 Democratic National Convention to Charlotte, N.C., where Duke’s corporate headquarters is located.

Others being mentioned in some policy circles are former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), who is practicing environment and natural resources law in Cheyenne, Wyo.; former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver (D), who is doing consulting work for the wind energy industry (E&E Daily, March 6); and Kathleen McGinty, who served in the Clinton administration before leading the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. She is a founding partner of Peregrine Technology Partners LLC, a clean-tech firm, and is a director at NRG Energy Inc., a wholesale power company.

Of course, beyond policy chops, anyone asked to lead DOE also will have to decide whether he or she has the constitution to take on such a high-stress role. The department has a broad portfolio, from securing nuclear material to funding research into carbon capture and sequestration, but the most prominent role for a second-term energy secretary likely will be continuing to face hostile questions from House Republicans.

“There are a lot of people who are qualified, who would be great candidates, who say, ‘I don’t want to do this,’” said one renewable energy lobbyist following the jockeying to replace Chu.

If Republican nominee Mitt Romney wins the election, observers expect his DOE would be led by someone with ties to the oil, natural gas or coal industries. The most mentioned contenders are former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard and Harold Hamm, the CEO of Continental Resources who has been advising the Romney campaign on energy issues, although several other names also have been floated (Greenwire, Oct. 23).