USGS, ARPA-E picks float through confirmation hearing

President Obama's picks to head the U.S. Geological Survey and a new Energy Department agency dedicated to developing breakthrough technologies breezed through a Senate hearing yesterday.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee heard from Marcia McNutt, nominated to be science adviser to the Interior secretary and the first woman director of USGS, and Arun Majumdar to direct the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

McNutt, currently head of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, promised to bring strong science leadership to the agency. She touted her familiarity with the agency's culture, having spent three years at the beginning of her career working for USGS in Menlo Park, Calif., on earthquake prediction.

While saying one of her top priorities will be to catalog the underwater resources up to 200 miles off the U.S. coastline, which she said remains largely unmapped and unassessed, McNutt also pledged not to ignore land issues.

When Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) pledged to help secure adequate funding for USGS water programs, McNutt said they were on the same page and that she looks forward to putting the agency's stream gauge network on solid footing.

Asked about carbon capture and sequestration, McNutt said USGS will be involved in developing a methodology and, if funded, carrying out an assessment of how much underground storage is available. But she declined to answer policy questions posed by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) regarding who would be legally responsible for the spaces where carbon would be stored.

McNutt joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982. She served as director of the Joint Program in Oceanography and Applied Ocean Science and Engineering offered by MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanography Institution. In 1997, she became president and CEO of the Monterey Bay research center, which has about 220 employees and is funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to carry out advanced research and education in ocean science and technology. She also is a professor of marine geophysics at Stanford University.

A new DOE agency

Majumdar, currently associate laboratory director for energy and environmental sciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, would direct ARPA-E.

The agency, authorized in 2007, is designed to select and fund high-risk, high-reward research into technologies that can curb energy imports and greenhouse gas emissions. It is modeled after the military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

ARPA-E received its first funding, $15 million, in a fiscal 2009 spending bill and then an additional $400 million in the economic stimulus law this year. DOE is currently reviewing research proposals submitted following the first ARPA-E solicitation earlier this year.

Majumdar pledged to grow the agency into "a robust engine of American innovation" and that speed, calculated risks, internal competition and agility will be the keys to its success. Asked how long members of Congress should give the agency before beginning to gauge its effectiveness, Majumdar said the timeline depends on what types of technology are being developed but it could be three to five years or longer.

Discussing energy efficiency, Majumdar said three areas to focus on are large buildings, such as providing heating and cooling on demand for particular areas rather than for the entire building; the transportation system, including a more efficient combustion engine and batteries; and construction materials such as cement, steel and glass.

Majumdar, a native of India, is also an engineering and materials science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His areas of interest include energy efficiency technology and using nanotechnology to harness energy lost as heat during electricity production, according to the Lawrence Berkeley lab.

Majumdar took over the lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division in 2007 and has been associate lab director for energy and environmental sciences since February. He has been on the University of California faculty since 1997. Energy Secretary Steven Chu headed the Berkeley lab before becoming secretary.