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Chu Promises to Tackle Climate Change and Seek Energy Independence

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu promised Tuesday that if confirmed as energy secretary he will aggressively pursue policies aimed at addressing climate change and achieving greater energy independence by developing clean energy sources.

But he also told lawmakers that he views nuclear power and coal as critical parts of the nation's energy mix and said he was optimistic that ways can be found to make coal a cleaner energy source by capturing its carbon dioxide emissions.

Chu, nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to head the Energy Department, appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee where he received immediate support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Committee chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said Chu has "the insight and vision" to press Obama's energy policies at the department. Bingaman said he saw no serious opposition to Chu's nomination and that a committee vote approving his selection would like occur later this week.

Chu, a Chinese-America who has been director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 2004, told senators that climate change is "a growing and pressing problem" and the nation's dependence on oil represents a threat to the U.S. economy and security.

Of the risks from global warming, Chu said: "It is now clear that if we continue on our current path, we run the risk of dramatic disruptive changes to our climate system in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the committee's ranking Republicans, also called Chu well qualified, but pressed him on his position on offshore oil development and nuclear energy.

Chu said nuclear energy produces a fifth of the nation's electricity and 70 percent of the carbon-free electricity and "is going to be an important part of our energy mix." About domestic oil production, Chu reiterated Obama's views that some expansion of offshore oil and gas development should be included as a broader energy plan.

But Chu sidestepped Murkowski's question on whether he would oppose any reinstatement of a broad ban on offshore oil drilling on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. "Improvements in energy efficiency is the one single factor that can most reduce our dependency on foreign oil," said Chu.

A widely respected scientist who shared a Nobel Prize in physics in 1997, Chu has been a strong advocate for more energy-related research, especially work on advanced biofuels and solar energy technologies. He has said that scientific research is key to tackling climate change, which he has argued cannot be ignored.

But Chu, when pressed by senators, also said coal must not be abandoned as a primary source of energy, although he promised that research into capturing carbon emissions -- pollution linked to climate change -- would be pursued aggressively.

"Some people think perhaps we can turn off coal," said Chu. "Even if we do it, China and India will not."

Chu has had little experience inside the Washington Beltway, although the laboratory he has headed is part of the system of federal research labs. He was chosen as director of the Berkeley lab in 2004 by the University of California, which runs the facility under contract with the Energy Department. During his tenure the lab has moved to the forefront in research into renewable energy and ways to improve energy efficiency.

Chu shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997 for finding a way to cool and trap atoms by using laser light. He is a former chairman of the physics department at Stanford University, and before that was head of the electronics research laboratory at Bell Labs.

If confirmed, Chu will head a department with a $25 billion budget and 14,000 employees and more than 193,000 contract workers. Its responsibilities cover a wide range, including setting appliance efficiency standards, overseeing a variety of energy research, assuring the reliability of the nation's nuclear warheads and disposing of nuclear waste.