By Tom Doggett
WASHINGTON, March 2 (Reuters) - Recent comments by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu appear to mark a radical shift in U.S. energy policy away from its focus on OPEC and oil supply and toward an agenda of trimming petroleum demand and promoting renewable energy at home.
Chu recently raised eyebrows by saying OPEC was not in the "domain" of his job responsibilities, and admitted he did not know the administration’s position on whether it was against another oil output cut when the group meets in Vienna on March 15.
The comments are in stark contrast to some of his recent predecessors who routinely lobbied the cartel for more supply, and provided further evidence the Nobel Prize winning physicist has broken the mold of his post.
"We’ve been wrestling with OPEC for more than 40 years and we haven’t really made any progress reining them in," said Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch & Associates in Galena, Illinois. "Chu is signaling a de-emphasis on Middle East oil and it is clear we will be heading in a greener direction."
Where others have focused on securing imports and raising domestic supplies to meet voracious U.S. energy demand, Chu has said he will push for more renewable energy, promote ways to save energy and fight global warming.
"By investing in groundbreaking research, making homes and businesses more energy efficient and deploying solar, wind, biomass and other clean energy, this ... will help ensure that America once again leads the world in confronting our global economic, energy and climate challenges," Chu said last week in reference to the Obama administration’s new budget.
The administration is hoping the shift in investment focus will create millions of jobs while reducing the country’s dependence on foreign oil, Energy Department spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said.
"Secretary Chu is extremely intelligent," said Guy Caruso, former head of the government’s Energy Information Administration and now a senior energy adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "In the long run focusing on renewables and efficiency certainly makes sense."
Still, Chu should not make the mistake of giving OPEC the impression that the United States does not mind if output is cut again, according to Heritage Foundation energy expert Ben Lieberman.
OPEC has already agreed to slash 4.2 million barrels of oil from the global market to combat a steep slide in prices, and members have said they may consider deepening the cut in Vienna.
A sharp rebound in oil prices could hamper an economic recovery, experts have said.
"(Chu) should have said something to the effect that it is in the interest of the American people for OPEC to not cut back on production," Lieberman said.
The last Democratic energy secretary, current New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, went as far as calling OPEC ministers during one of their meetings for some last-minute lobbying against an output cut.
But even if he took a hard line now, Chu would have little sway over what OPEC decides at its meeting as the oil producers suffer falling oil revenues due to the collapse in prices and demand.
"OPEC is engaged in the business of maximizing oil revenue and there’s no evidence that U.S. jawboning ever has or ever will persuade the cartel to leave money on the table," said Jerry Taylor, energy expert at the Cato Institute. "U.S. policy to whine, beg, threaten and tantrum (OPEC) is embarrassing and counterproductive."
"It’s not that Steven Chu is in over his head. It’s that Steven Chu is not a politician," he said. "And it’s not all bad for an energy secretary to leave the politics to somebody else." (Reporting by Tom Doggett; editing by Jim Marshall)