Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu pledged Tuesday that, if confirmed as energy secretary, he would lead a government effort to capture the greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Chu backed off a bit from earlier comments - widely quoted on the Internet after Chu's nomination by President-elect Barack Obama - that coal was his "worst nightmare," and explained that the term applied only if carbon dioxide emissions go uncontrolled.
"I said that in the following context: If the world continues to use coal the way we're using it today ... then it is a pretty bad dream," Chu told a Senate committee during a two-hour confirmation hearing.
Previously, Chu had said publicly that he wasn't certain scientists would find a workable way to capture and bury carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. He had said pilot projects so far were too small to tell if the process would work on the scale needed around the world.
During Tuesday's hearing, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., quizzed Chu about those comments, prefacing his questions by noting that he chairs an appropriations subcommittee that controls the Department of Energy budget.
"It is imperative that we figure out a way to burn coal as cleanly as possible," Chu told Dorgan. "I will work very hard to extensively develop these technologies so that the United States and the rest of the world can use them."
He added, "There are some people in the United States who feel, perhaps, that we should turn off coal, but even if we do, China and India will not."
But Chu also said the United States should take the lead on reducing greenhouse emissions, and not delay action until other nations agree to take the same steps.