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Obama’s environmental team makes for the exit

Rumours of US energy secretary Steven Chu’s imminent departure, swirling for weeks, picked up again on Thursday. If confirmed, the Nobel laureate’s departure would very nearly complete the list of resignations by members of President Barack Obama’s vaunted environment team.

The resignations, common as presidents move into their second terms, began on 12 December, when marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco announced that she was leaving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; next came US Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson, on 27 December. US Geological Survey director Marcia McNutt announced her resignation last week, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced his on Wednesday.

Featured as Nature‘s Newsmaker of the Year in 2009, Chu led the energy department through a remarkable period, overseeing US$37-billion economic stimulus spending on clean energy and technology in the wake of the financial crisis. Although generally popular, Chu came under fierce criticism by Republican lawmakers after the department invested $535 million in a solar manufacturer that ultimately went bankrupt.

A physicist by training, Chu previously headed the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, where he took an interest in the global energy dilemma. After coming to Washington, he worked to overhaul the way the department conducts and funds energy research, promoting the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy for high-risk science as well as a series of interdisciplinary Energy Innovation Hubs.

Chu’s departure would whittle Obama’s ‘science dream team‘ down to two, leaving John Holdren as the White House science adviser and geneticist Francis Collins at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. Despite the lack of a formal statement from Chu, Washington has been buzzing with speculation about potential candidates since November. The long list includes former senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, and deputy-defence secretary Ashton Carter as well as Dan Reicher, a Stanford University professor and former energy department official who previously headed energy and climate ventures for Google.

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