Senate Panel Considers Key DOE Nominations

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Publication date: 
29 October 2015
Number: 
137

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to consider six of President Obama’s nominees for leadership positions at the Department of Energy and Department of Interior, including Cherry Murray to be Director of the DOE Office of Science.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to consider six of President Obama’s nominees for leadership positions at the Department of Energy and Department of Interior, including Cherry Murray to be Director of the DOE Office of Science

On Oct. 20, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to consider President Obama’s nominations for six top leadership positions at the Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of the Interior (DOI).  Among these are Cherry Murray to be Director of the DOE Office of Science and John Kotek to be Assistant Secretary of Nuclear Energy.

Although committee members did not vote on the pending nominations, the two-and-a-half hour hearing was an opportunity for the senators to conduct oversight of the agencies and departments under their jurisdiction as well as provide feedback on the President’s nomination choices. Each nominee spoke to her or his qualifications, and the senators questioned the nominees about their views on a range of DOE and DOI issues and programs.

Committee leaders weigh in favorably on DOE nominees

Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) opened the hearing with praise for current Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who she said “works with us, … listens to us, and … deserves to have his team in place to support him.” Her assessment was not as rosy of Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, calling the Interior Department’s record “very frustrating” and expressing mixed sentiments toward the President’s two DOI nominees under consideration.

Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) expressed support for the nominees in her opening remarks, saying their work is the underpinning of the missions of the DOE and DOI and specifically pointing out the role of the DOE Office of Science and U.S. Geological Survey Director positions in leading the scientific efforts of their respective departments. (The DOE Office of Science manages ten national laboratories and is the largest supporter of the physical sciences in the U.S.)

Cantwell noted that most of the nominees already have experience in the positions they are being nominated to fill, calling them “highly qualified” and saying they “have already demonstrated their fitness and ability to serve.

Murray shares philosophy on government’s role in science

In Murray’s testimony, she spoke to her qualifications to be Director of the DOE Office of Science, drawing on her lifetime of education and experience in the energy sciences. Murray serves on the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board and the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories, is currently the Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, and was Deputy Director of Science and Technology at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory starting in 2004. Before then, she worked for 27 years at Bell Labs, rising to the level of Senior Vice President for Research and Development, a position charged with leading new innovations in the telecommunications field.  Murray also served as president of the American Physical Society (APS), an AIP Member Society, in 2009, and has won a number of prestigious APS awards.

In her remarks, Murray reflected on what she has learned about science over the course of her career:

I experienced directly how breakthroughs in fundamental science lead to the most disruptive technologies in the market. I also learned that the transition from basic science to technology development and ultimately to new products is never easy, and it is not a linear process; it is more of a spiral.

Murray’s final point of her testimony captured her philosophy toward the government’s role in supporting basic science:

As in all technology advances, the major technology revolution that is happening right now in our energy system will be catalyzed by advances in science. In the past, as a nation, we could rely on the great industrial research labs. They could provide leading edge science relevant to technology, and they did. But industry is no longer doing as much fundamental science. We must harness the enormous potential of the DOE national laboratories working with our great research universities in collaboration with industry.

When asked by Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) about her support of technology transfer, in a reference to the recently released recommendations of the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories, Murray responded with a number of ideas to bolster technology transfer at the labs. Among them are incentivizing post-docs at the national laboratories to transition to start-ups and other small companies as well as the creation of umbrella agreements for small businesses in the communities surrounding the national laboratories. Heinrich encouraged Murray to consider creating “a front door outside the gate, literally a space with these labs, where small business can engage directly with the labs without going through all the steps that it takes to go behind the gate for the first time.”

Kotek highlights his nuclear energy foci for the nation

Kotek, who currently serves as Acting Assistant Secretary for the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, previously served as staff director for the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which as FYI reported in 2012 recommended a new strategy for managing nuclear waste in the U.S.  He also worked previously for Argonne National Laboratory and oversaw efforts of the Idaho National Laboratory while at the DOE headquarters.

In his testimony, Kotek spoke with optimism about the role of nuclear in the nation’s energy future, citing the innovative ways nuclear energy will be harnessed in upcoming decades:

I have long believed that nuclear energy can and should play an important role in meeting our twin objectives of meeting rising global energy demands while addressing the threat posed by the emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases. … I’m particularly excited about the opportunities for technologies like small modular reactors and even more novel reactor technologies to provide safe, affordable, low-carbon electricity and other energy products, potentially including process heat, hydrogen production, and desalinization services.

Senate confirmation up in the air

In recent years, many presidential nominations have been held up in the Senate for months or longer, leading to concerns that the delays have been interfering with the executive branch’s ability to lead and function.  The DOE Office of Science, for instance, has been led in an acting capacity by Deputy Director Patricia Dehmer since William Brinkman resigned in April 2013. President Obama’s first nominee to replace Brinkman, Marc Kastner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, never received Senate confirmation. While there is currently no timeline on the confirmation vote of the six nominees, the hearing is an important step toward full Senate confirmation.