ON THE WEB: Watch Chu's speech at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLr4YbStc0M The comments about coal come 28 minutes into the speech.
President-elect Barack Obama's pick for U.S. energy secretary isn't sold on the idea that technology to capture greenhouse emissions and pump them underground will save the coal industry.
Carbon capture and storage research is still in its early stages, said Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist announced by Obama this week as his nominee to run the U.S. Department of Energy. Real-world projects to pump millions of tons of carbon dioxide might also be rejected unless scientists show it can be done safely, Chu said during an April speech.
"Coal is my worst nightmare," said Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a Stanford University professor.
Chu noted that coal is the current "default option" for meeting growing energy needs in the United States, China and India. But coal is also firing continued increases in worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, even at a time when scientists say the need to dramatically reduce those emissions is critical.
"We have lots of fossil fuel," Chu said during a talk outlining his views on energy policy. "That's really both good and bad news. We won't run out of energy, but there's enough carbon in the ground to really cook us."
Chu said existing pilot projects involving a few million tons of carbon dioxide sequestration are far too small to tell if the process would work on the scale needed.
"It's sort of a research and development issue," he said. "I think we have to do this if we're going to go forward with coal, but it's not a guarantee that we have a solution with coal."
Late last week, when word began leaking that Chu was a likely Obama Cabinet choice, his comments about coal began circulating on the Internet, primarily after they were posted on a Wall Street Journal blog.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he had not seen Chu's remarks, but that they gave him cause for concern.
"What I'm concerned about is how many coal mines has he been to, and what is his thought about the coal mines and their families who rely on this industry?" Raney said. "That may be his personal opinion, but that's got to be sobered up a bit."
Other coal boosters were familiar with Chu's comments, but also insisted they were less concerned.
"Any remarks Dr. Chu has made over the years, whether positive or negative about coal must be viewed against specific public policy objectives laid out by President-elect Obama," said Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association.
Raulston noted that Obama has emphasized "energy independence" and supports "the next generation of clean coal technology to capture and store emissions of carbon from coal-based generation."