Former Consol exec tapped to lead federal fossil fuel office

A former Consol Energy Inc. executive will be nominated to lead the U.S. Department of Energy’s branch in charge of fossil fuels research, the White House announced.

Steve Winberg, who retired from Cecil-based Consol in 2014 as its director of research and has since been working at the Battelle Memorial Institute as a senior program manager, will be nominated to serve as assistant secretary for fossil energy.

Mr. Winberg said he was “humbled and honored” with the news, which he learned on Friday. He declined to talk about specific goals or priorities for the department.

“There’s a lot of areas in fossil areas that I want to focus on,” he said, “but it would be premature” to discuss them before he is confirmed by the Senate.

The Office of Fossil Energy, based in Washington, D.C., and in Germantown, Md., oversees the National Energy Technology Laboratories, including the ones in South Park and Morgantown, W.Va.

In addition to research into coal, oil, and gas, this branch of the federal energy department is also responsible for the country’s strategic petroleum reserve, which has been tapped in the past week to mitigate gasoline price spikes resulting from the impairment of refineries in the path of Hurricane Harvey.

Mr. Winberg was also on the board of the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, a group of electricity generators, coal companies and manufacturers that were supposed to build the first coal power plant capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground instead of emitting it in the air. Carbon capture and sequestration — or the funneling of the captured carbon dioxide into oil wells to coax more fuel from the ground -— was once seen as a way to keep coal’s place in the electric grid intact when environmental regulations or legislation to tax carbon materialized.

But the rapid growth of shale gas, which boosted natural gas’s place in power generation, tempered the urgency for carbon capture and utilities turned their gaze away from the carbon capture technology. 

FutureGen disbanded without a commercial project, something Mr. Winberg has previously said was in part the fault of poor government funding and support.

In conference appearances and interviews, Mr. Winberg has bemoaned the lack of federal research dollars for carbon capture projects. What likely awaits Mr. Winberg at the helm of Fossil Energy, if confirmed, is yet more drastic reductions to such funding.

The budget proposed by President Donald Trump in the spring includes a steep 56 percent cut to Fossil Energy’s research and development programs, including an 85 percent cut to research on carbon capture and sequestration or utilization.

Money trouble isn’t the only challenge that Mr. Winberg is likely to face.

Another Pittsburgh-educated Battelle alum who served as the head of the fossil energy office under President Barack Obama, Chuck McConnell, once bemoaned how the politics of climate change crippled his ability to do his job.

Some in the Obama administration and its Democratic supporters in Congress argued that climate change concerns would be better addressed by funneling money toward renewable energy, Mr. McConnell said in 2015, while many Republicans — “in climate change denial” — didn’t want federal funding going toward a solution for a problem they refused to accept exists.

“I’ve thought about a lot of those things,” Mr. Winberg said on Tuesday, but again declined to delve deeper until he is sworn in.

Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455.

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