Novel physicist to run energy agency (12/18,25/2008)

Obama appointments likely to focus on renewabele energy and implementing cap and trade.

By choosing Nobel-prizewinning physicist Steven Chu to head the Department of Energy (DoE), US Presidest-elect Barack Obama has sent a clear message : solving climete issues in a world dependent on fossil fuels will depend on science coming up with new energy technologies.

Three other key positions in Obama's climate and energy team have also been settled, and they point to an administration that will be serious about climate change and the regulation of emissions.

Carol Browner, who was director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the 1990s, will became a new Cabinet-level climate and energy coordinator. Taking over the EPA will be Lisa Jackson, the former head of New Jersey's Department of Envirronmental Protection. And Nancy Sutley, a deputy mayor of Los Angeles who has worked on California climate and water issues, is to be named head of the white House Council on Environmental Quality.

But it is the selection of Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California, that has excited academics across the country. They interpret it as a message that not only will energy research be an administration priority, but that science itself will have a voice at the table. "It's really pulling science out of the shadows in the United States," says Philip Bucksbaum, a physicist at Stanford University in California and a friend of Chu's since graduate school in the 1970s. "It's just exciting to know that there's a physicist - a really smart one ond not at all quiet and retiring - sitting at the Cabinet table."

Chu will move from the LBNL, a US$600-million, 4,000-employee lab, to the $24-billion DoE, sometimes colled the 'Department of everything' because it oversees 17 national labs with missions varying from renewable energy research to particle physics, and from the design of nuclear weapons to the disposal of nuclear waste. It is rare for a DoE secretary to rise from within, and just as rare for the secretary - typically a politician or busibessperson - to have a science background at all. (The current secretary, Samuel Bodman, does have a doctorate in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.)

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Paradox: Whale protection and an earthquake study

Whales sink plans for seismic survey off the Canadian coast

Airgun ban halts seismic tests

 Geologists hoping to study Earth's crust off British Cloumbia have reached an impasse with the Canadian government, delaying their long-planned resarch projects.

Canada has not issed permits for geological work using airguns ― which fire bursts of air into the ocean ― on the basis that it may disturb marine life, including whales.

The dispute is so intense that one long-planned US$2.5-million project is "dead in the water".

A second sutudy, meant to facilitate a Can$100-million(US$99-million) Canadian selfloor observatory system, has been delayed at last three months, if not indefinitely.

The researchers are exasperated, arguing that they have done "everything right" to comply with environmental protection laws.

They say that Canadian agencies have capitulated to environmental organizations.

Canada has a moratorium on oil and gas development, which also involves airguns to locate reserves, along its western coastal waters.

Fears that a scientific airgun cruise could open the waters to oil and gas exploration sunk the research projects' chances, says Lincoln Hollster, a gioscientist at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Hollister has spent more than four years trying to win Canadian approval to use airguns to map the crust beneath the mountains and coastal fjords of Queen Charlotte Sound in northern British Columbia.

In 1994, he led a similar cruise without causing any environmental harm, he says.

The team has footage of humpback whale basking undisturbed in the distant background while airguns ware fired.

Anecdotes aside, there is no definitive data yet available on the effects such seismic tests have on marine animals.

Results from a US study on this conducted in summer 2007 have yet to be piblished.

In March, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Canada(NSERC)killed plans to provide Can$300,000 for the Canadian members of Hollister's team.

NSERC environmental officer Diane Fraser in Ottawa says that this was done on advice from scientists at the Department of Fisheries and Ocean(DFO).

"There were not enough scientific data to be able to determine one way or another if airguns would be harmful," says Fraser.

Since that rejection, Hollister says he has attempted repeatedly to learn from the DFO and NSERC what could done to remedy the situation, but no one responds.

Adam Silverstein, an environmental-assessment manager at the DFO in Vancouver, denies knowledge of such requests.

Hollister counters that Silverstein was repeatedly copied in on e-mail.

"It is widely recognized that everything was done right to get the permits," Hollister claims.

Margot Venton, a legal consultant for environmental group Ecojustice in Vancouver, acknowledges that the potential for oil and gas exploration was a concern, and say that as Canadian agencies failed to show the acoustic study would not cause harm to animals, it shouldn't proceed.

At the US National Science Foundation(NSF), which funds the US component of Hollister's study, there is dismay notes William Lang, who secures environmental permits for NSF-funded scientists in foreign waters.

"The very high-value proposal didn't get a fair hearing in the public forum," he says.

The airgun issue is also thwarting plans for the Marcus Langseth, a US$20-million research vessel operated by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Colunbia University in New York City.

The ship was intended to be in Cabadian waters next July to measure seismic velocities in preparation for the installation of Neptune Canada ― a seafloor observatory ― in the summer of 2009, says Douglas Toomey, a geologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

But the US$2-million cruise has now been delayed until at least October.

A Lamont-Doherty spokesman says that US state department officials are seeking "reasonable assurance" that the Toomey project will secure a permit before an expensive Canadian application process is initiatsd.

### DataBace ###
nature Vol 451 | Issue no.7174 | 1-106 | 3 January 2008
News p.3 / Whales sink plans for seismic survey off the Canadian coast / Rex Dalton

By airguns prohibition laws and ordinances for whale protection, the earthquake study at the Canada coast reached a deadlock.

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