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This is the first issue of Profiles in Leadership, a series of interviews with senior executives in the Office of Fossil Energy (FE).  In this edition we talk to Christopher Smith, Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy.  

Talk a little about FE’s role in U.S. energy security.

FE is primarily a technology organization.  The heart of our mandate is developing technologies to power the clean energy economy of the future in what will be a carbon-constrained world.  Our unique advantage in FE is our government-owned and operated laboratory: the National Energy Technology Laboratory [NETL].  So we have real capabilities, unique to FE, to help us accomplish our mission. 

We also have some important regulatory missions that are relevant to energy security.  We oversee public interest determinations that go into decisions on whether or not to export natural gas.  We also oversee the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which has just under 700 million barrels of crude oil; it’s the largest strategic oil stockpile in the world.

So, we really have a broad and diverse mission.

What’s an average day like for you?

It’s hard to sum up an average day.  Our mission, again, is very broad.  It goes from developing technology and thinking about how we employ the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to helping communities understand how to prudently develop their resources and deal with environmental issues.  So it’s hard to articulate an average day as Assistant Secretary. 

However, I’m tremendously fortunate in that we’ve got a strong leadership team in place.  For the first time since I came to FE, we have all the Deputy Assistant Secretary positions filled; we have a new Director of NETL; and I just appointed a new chief of staff.  So I’ve got a tremendous team backing me.  My job is to make sure they have resources and clarity in terms of our mission, visions and goals.

What do you want to accomplish as Assistant Secretary?

Over the next year and a half, there are three things that I’ve publicly declared to be my focus, above and beyond daily demands.

The first is management, focusing on systems, processes, organization – all the things that will help make us a more effective organization. 

Secondly, I’m focused on our major carbon capture and storage [CCS] demonstration projects.  Recently we announced that these projects have stored 10 million tons of carbon dioxide – a really important milestone.  It’s hard to overemphasize just how important these projects and our Regional Partnerships are.  So we need to make sure that we’re managing them effectively and that we’re cognizant of being good stewards of taxpayer funds. 

And the third thing is Africa.  Secretary Moniz created a task force specifically dedicated to deepening our ties to African countries.  His goal is to create effective partnerships and pivot from an “aid” relationship to a true commercial partnership which will benefit both the U.S. and African countries.  I’m the co-chair of the Energy Department’s task force, along with Andrea Lockwood from the Office of International Affairs and John MacWilliams from the Office of the Secretary.  So I’ll be spending a lot of my time managing that effort and making trips to the African continent.

What’s the one thing that you would most like to tell the world about FE?

Well, one thing we haven’t historically done well is helping people understand our mission.

What we do here is work on the technologies that will ensure that we can use all of our sources of domestic energy, in a way consistent with job creation, energy security, and – very importantly – reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  If we’re not successful in our mission to further commercialize CCS, it’s difficult to see a clear pathway to getting CO2 emissions down to sustainable levels.

Ours is an important mission.  It’s one tied to climate change and to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  It’s also about energy security and job creation.  I think we could be more forceful in communicating how our R&D and partnerships with industry are taking steps to make sure that we’re developing the right technologies for the future.

Tell us something about yourself that’s not in your official bio.

I go to work; I go home; and I do stuff with my kids.  That’s about 95 percent of my life.

I really enjoy this job, and I’ve been surprised at how fun it’s been.  But my real fun is at home with my two kids – my 10 year-old son and nine year-old daughter.  They’re both active in karate and making their way up the ranks at their dojo.    

My daughter also likes riding horses, so I go out and watch her.  My son plays rugby and I coach his team.  I played rugby in the Army and on club teams after the Army.  So I know a little bit more about rugby than about riding horses. 

Thank you for your time, Chris.