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Chu gives scientific advice behind the scenes in Gulf spill effort

By Ed Hornick, CNN
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, right, is briefed on the Gulf oil spill response in Houston, Texas.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, right, is briefed on the Gulf oil spill response in Houston, Texas.
  • Steven Chu is the nation's energy secretary
  • He won the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics
  • Chu is working with a team of scientists and experts on oil spill efforts

Washington (CNN) -- While President Obama has made much of Energy Secretary Steven Chu's scientific accomplishments, Chu's role as Gulf oil disaster troubleshooter is a little murky.

"It's very difficult to tell because he's doing all of his work behind the scenes," said William Galston, an expert on governance studies at the nonpartisan Brookings Institute. "I assume that he is giving very high quality technical advice to people who are trying to devise better solutions to an ongoing problem."

Galston said that because Chu hasn't really appeared or spoken to the public much, "it's extraordinarily difficult to pierce the veil and figure out what's actually going on behind the scenes."

Chu has spent the past few weeks working with a team of scientists and government experts, along with BP, to try to stop the massive oil leak from growing larger.

Chu and his team of scientists came up with the idea of using gamma ray imaging to get a better picture of what has happening inside the malfunctioning blowout preventer, nearly a mile below the surface.

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The Department of Energy said it's providing online access to schematics, pressure tests, diagnostic results and other data about the malfunctioning blowout preventer.

Chu, the nation's 12th energy secretary, has made several trips to Houston, Texas, to meet with BP officials, and told Reuters that the company had a "good team but had benefited from government scientists' oversight and ideas."

Just this week, Chu helped the National Incident Command's Flow Rate Technical Group estimate how much oil is spewing from the Deepwater Horizon well.

Some Republicans, however, are questioning how Chu's efforts -- and the government's response so far -- are really working.

"Nearly two months after disaster first struck, the federal response remains inadequate and disorganized," House Minority Leader John Boehner said after Obama's Oval Office address on Tuesday. "Americans are rightly angry about this failure of government, and they want to know that their president is focused squarely on stopping this leak, cleaning up this mess, and finding out what went wrong."

Chu has defended the president's decision to incorporate a science-based approach to finding the solution, saying that while it may look like there is flailing and confusion, it's not the case.

"If there's any way the intellectual horsepower of the U.S. scientific and engineering community can add value, we're going to do this," Chu said during a press briefing on May 12.

The cleanup effort, he said, is ultimately a "complicated affair."

Galston said Chu could help explain that complicated affair.

"I think someone like Steven Chu could be very, very helpful in explaining to the American people what the efforts to stop the oil spill are actually amounting to, what the technical difficulties are, and what the next steps may be," he said.

Steven Wereley, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, said Chu's background is a profound asset in stopping the leak: Chu won the Nobel Prize for physics and was in charge of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory before joining the Obama administration.

"It's certainly not what he won the Nobel prize for, but he is a well-trained scientist, and like any well-trained scientist he's able to understand the principles that are involved and to direct teams who are doing the in-depth investigations into those principles," he said.

As for concerns that an executive, not an academic such as Chu, should be in charge, Galston said, "This is someone who has been involved in managing large institutions in academia and I have no reason to believe that he wouldn't add something to the public dialogue if he were out there more."

Chu also has a history with BP.

The beleaguered company gave half a billion dollars to LBNL when Chu was its director. One of Chu's top lieutenants at the Energy Department is a former BP scientist -- though he's been recused from oil spill matters.

Wereley said bringing in an academic took politics out of the flow-rate determination.

"I think having somebody at the secretary level who is trained in science and leading this response -- leading this calculation of the flow rate -- I think that's incredibly beneficial. He can get things done in a short order," Werely said.

Government scientists on Tuesday increased the estimate of oil flowing into the Gulf to between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day -- up to 50 percent more than previously estimated. That translates into 1.5 million gallons to 2.5 million gallons per day.

The government's previous estimate, issued last week, was 20,000 to 40,000 barrels per day. The change was "based on updated information and scientific assessments," the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center said, and was reached by Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Marcia McNutt, chairwoman of the National Incident Command's Flow Rate Technical Group.

CNN Security Correspondent Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.

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