President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science met some hostile questions at a Senate confirmation hearing today. Senator John Barrasso (WY), the senior Republican on the Senate energy committee, questioned whether Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, a soil scientist at the University of California, Merced, has the qualifications to lead the agency, which is the United States’s single biggest funder of the physical sciences and spends less than 11% of its $7 billion annual budget on biological and environmental research.
Berhe’s “background and experience appear to have little to do with the Department of Energy’s scientific focus and the scientific community with which it collaborates,” Barrasso said in his opening statement, echoing the objections voiced by some physicists when the White House nominated Berhe to the post on 22 April. Later, noting that the majority of the Office of Science’s funding is in physics and high-performance computing, he asked Berhe, “Do you have any experience managing programs in these areas?”
Berhe responded by noting that DOE’s research priorities are set in consultation with the research communities and Congress and committing to adhere to such guidance. “I can assure you that if I were to be confirmed for this position, no area of focus within the DOE’s vast research portfolio would be short-changed in any way,” she said. She also noted that her national and international efforts both in research and workforce development are “well-recognized … I believe I bring an Earth systems sciences perspective that allows me to expand and work on these important issues.”
In contrast, Barrasso heaped praise on Geraldine Richmond, a chemist at the University of Oregon whom the White House nominated to be DOE’s undersecretary for science. Noting that Richmond has “served in leadership positions on numerous boards and received many honors,” Barrasso said, “You appear to be highly qualified to serve as undersecretary.” If confirmed, Richmond would take responsibility for coordinating the scientific aspects of work across the sprawling department and would be Berhe’s boss.
In Berhe’s case, committee members seemed less interested in her resume and more interested in an implication of Berhe’s field of research, soil science. Earth’s soils already hold more than three times as much carbon as the atmosphere. That fact raises the possibility that humans might coax soil to soak up more atmospheric carbon dioxide and, thus, fight climate change. “Nature, indeed, is one of our best allies in addressing the climate challenge,” Berhe said in response to a question by Senator John Hickenlooper (D–CO). Hickenlooper responded, “It’s exciting times. I think you’re the right person in the right place.”
None of the senators asked about the opposite prospect, however: that warming soils will release even more carbon dioxide into the air. “Keep in mind that the way we have used natural resources historically has caused a lot of carbon to be released from natural ecosystems into the atmosphere,” Berhe said. “But we can at least reverse some of that and actually use natural ecosystems to sequester a significant amount of carbon.”
Berhe did not receive the prickliest questions from the committee. That distinction fell to Cynthia Weiner Stachelberg, the White House nominee for assistant secretary of the Interior for policy, management, and budget. Currently at the Center for American Progress, Stachelberg faced questions from multiple Republican senators about her previous advocacy for stricter gun laws, at one point declining to respond when Senator Mike Lee (R–UT) repeatedly asked her to define the term “assault rifle.”
Berhe also got a full-throated endorsement during the hearing itself. Noting that if they are both confirmed, Richmond would be Berhe’s immediate superior, Senator Angus King (D–ME) asked Richmond, “Do you have confidence in her ability to manage that office and to lead that office?” Richmond responded: “Yes, I am fully confident in her ability to fulfill the duties of that office, and I look forward to working with her.”
Whereas similar hearings in previous Congresses typically centered on economic competitiveness, today’s hearing focused squarely on climate change, which Richmond characterized as “an existential threat to the entire planet.” King said he worried people were denying the threat of climate change, much as some people in the United Kingdom denied the threat of the rise of Nazi Germany prior to World War II. Richmond replied, “We have to take action now, and the Department of Energy has to be the leader. … I assure you, that if confirmed, that will be a top priority of mine—to basically save the planet.”