DOE picks may sway Biden on climate, environmental justice

By David Iaconangelo, Lesley Clark | 04/23/2021 07:12 AM EDT

President Biden’s picks yesterday for two leadership roles at the Department of Energy may put top voices on environmental justice into the driver’s seat for advancing the president’s climate agenda.

The Department of Energy headquarters in Washington is pictured.

The Department of Energy headquarters in Washington is pictured. Francis Chung/E&E News

President Biden’s picks yesterday for two leadership roles at the Department of Energy may put top voices on environmental justice into the driver’s seat for advancing the president’s climate agenda.

Biden tapped Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, a professor of soil geochemistry at the University of California, Merced, and an outspoken voice on equity issues, to lead DOE’s Office of Science, which manages 10 of the department’s 17 national laboratories (E&E News PM, April 22).

If confirmed, Berhe would lead an office that manages many of the department’s collaborations with university researchers, making it an important hub for clean energy innovation. Her nomination may also elevate the Office of Science’s extensive research on biology and Earth systems, which helps inform international climate modeling and advances in biofuels.


As a researcher, Berhe’s work has dealt with how soil interacts with other Earth systems, including by storing carbon dioxide from the air.

It’s an atypical background for an Office of Science nominee, as those named to lead the office usually have been physicists, computer scientists or nanotechnologists. The office is the nation’s largest funder of basic research on the physical sciences.

Asmeret Asefaw Berhe. Photo credit: Aabhtt/Wikipedia
Asmeret Asefaw Berhe. | Aabhtt/Wikipedia

Former DOE officials and energy innovation analysts said her background underscores the administration’s focus on climate change across agencies and offices.

The Office of Science funds "major climate models and biological research relevant to energy and climate, such as bioenergy," Cherry Murray, a former director of the office and current professor of technology and public policy at Harvard University, wrote in an email.

"The nomination of Berhe as a soil scientist is relevant to this part of the portfolio and clearly points out the administration focus on climate," she added.

Berhe’s background may also give the office a stronger environmental justice profile than it had in the past, analysts say.

Born and raised in Asmara, Eritrea, Berhe wrote her master’s thesis at Michigan State University on how land mines cause land degradation. She is a former chair of UC Merced’s committee for diversity and equity and has published articles in academic journals on racism and the lack of diversity within science, technology, engineering and math fields.

In a Time magazine opinion piece last year, she said the climate change community should address "historic inequities" with access to resources and adopt adaptation strategies informed by Indigenous knowledge.

She also noted that the Earth’s soil stores four times more CO2 than the atmosphere.

"The interconnected nature of the climate, soil systems and the future of global food production demands that we simultaneously address climate change and rehabilitation of degraded soils," she wrote.

Yet soils are often overlooked as a carbon sink, "partly due to the lack of diversity in the climate-change community," argued Berhe. Prioritizing its stewardship, she wrote, could allow for a third of the emissions reductions needed to address the climate crisis.

"I would say she’s not just a soil scientist; she’s also a climate scientist," said Jetta Wong, president of JLW Advising and a senior fellow in the clean energy innovation program at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

At the Office of Science, added Wong, "she’s going to be in the middle of the conversations around biological sequestration, which is absolutely needed if we’re going to be able to meet the climate goals our president has laid out for us."

Berhe did not respond to E&E News inquiries by press time.

The office under Biden also will play a role in assessing how much money to devote to the quest for a fusion reactor — a potential source of limitless carbon-free power for the second half of the century. The fusion goal has gathered momentum but still faces steep research hurdles. Under former President Trump, the office sponsored expert reports calling for development of a pilot fusion reactor by 2040, hoping to demonstrate whether commercial reactors could be affordable for utilities. The question requires a costly new research agenda, according to DOE’s academic advisers, at a time when developers of advanced fission reactors are also pressing for DOE to back their billion-dollar pilot plants.

The Berhe pick comes as the Biden administration seeks to ramp up work at an office whose funding was targeted for cuts by the Trump White House. In 2017, Murray, the office’s former director, said scientists were "anxious" about whether their research would be targeted, as well (Greenwire, Feb. 1, 2017).

‘This is a moment unlike any other’

The White House also announced yesterday that it has nominated Shalanda Baker as director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity and Frank Rose as principal deputy administrator for national nuclear security.

Baker, who is DOE’s first-ever deputy director for energy justice in the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, spoke yesterday at the launch of the University of California’s Center for Climate Justice, urging participants to engage with residents of poor, Black and Hispanic communities who often end up living next to power plants — and generally fork over more of their salaries for electricity.

Shalanda Baker. Photo credit: Northeastern University
Shalanda Baker. | Northeastern University

"In many ways, the energy system is complicit in the structural violence that is routinely experienced by people of color in this country," she said, noting that communities aren’t always at the table when decisions are made on where to place power installations. Studies show that residents in communities of color often pay a greater share of their salaries for utilities, she said.

Biden has directed federal agencies to spend 40% of their sustainability investments on disadvantaged communities.

"This is a moment unlike any other in recent memory and perhaps in generations," she said. "We have an opportunity to transform our entire energy system in service of equity and service of justice."

Baker was most recently a professor of law, public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University. She also directed and co-founded the Initiative for Energy Justice, which provides technical law and policy support to help communities tackle climate change. She also authored "Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition," which came out earlier this year.

She included some criticism of DOE in her book, writing that the department in 2012 released a road map to guide the approach to community energy but failed to "center the concerns of those who stand to benefit the most from community-based clean energy: marginalized communities historically impacted by fossil fuel development."

Reporter Peter Behr contributed.