Stephen Chu No Longer Wants to Rob You for Gas Money

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 14 2012 2:52 PM

Stephen Chu No Longer Wants to Rob You for Gas Money

Driving around Alabama yesterday, listening to talk radio, you'd have been mistaken if you thought the Republican primary was only the second or third-biggest news break. The biggest, repeated every hour, was The Recantation of Stephen Chu. The Secretary of Energy had faced a grilling from Sen. Mike Lee and announced that he no longer dreamed of expensive gas. David Jackson explains:

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

The statement: "Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe."
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During a Senate hearing yesterday, Chu said, "I no longer share that view," because of the fragile state of the economy.

A little context -- not context that exonerates Chu, just stuff that explains him. In September 2008, before he was Energy Secretary-designate, Chu told the Wall Street Journal that an increase in energy costs should be gradual, and spurred by the government, not linked to random commodity price shifts.

Mr. Chu has called for gradually ramping up gasoline taxes over 15 years to coax consumers into buying more-efficient cars and living in neighborhoods closer to work.
"Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe," Mr. Chu, who directs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in September.

Conservatives read this and accuse Chu of anti-freedom collectivist thinking. They are not wrong: This is a central planner's dream. It's the theory of a scientist who works in densely populated northern California, not of someone who has to commute to work 30 minutes every morning in some exurban sprawl, and can't easily move to an ideopolis.

But: This was not a thought-out Chu plan. He said it before Barack Obama won the presidency. After Obama won, he denounced the idea. You'll notice that gas taxes have not actually gone up in Obama's term. The price shifts of this summer and last summer are linked to demand, external crises (the Arab Spring last year, Iran now), etc. In his heart, is Chu less distraught about this than you are? Sure. He wants more demand for solar and wind energy (and nuclear, the only one that makes sense). But this isn't how he planned it. In between news segments, if you were driving yesterday afternoon, you heard Rush Limbaugh explain that Chu wanted people to pay more for gas because the Obama administration wanted more people to become destitute and dependent on TANF. That's a nugget of reality being added to a stew of conspiracy theory.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.