President-elect Bush's choice as Energy Secretary, ex-Senator Spencer Abraham was confirmed for the post by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee just hours after his Jan. 18 confirmation hearing. However, his former Senate colleagues cautioned that he will face tough challenges, including California's severe electric power problems. Rolling blackouts began in the state the day before the hearing.

Abraham, a Michigan Republican who lost his re-election bid , told the Energy and Natural Resources Committee it would be "premature to speculate" about possible actions the Bush team might take regarding California. But he said, "I'm not going to put this off for long." He added, "This administration is very concerned....We view this as a matter of urgent priority and will treat it as such."

Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska, the committee's top Republican, told Abraham there will be "great expectations" that he will solve California's problem. "You better have some answers after [January] the 20th," Murkowski said. But he argued against a completely federal solution, saying, "The immediate burden has to fall on California," including its Governor, Democrat Gray Davis, and regulators.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) said California's situation "is an immediate crisis." Domenici said one factor is opposition in the state to new power plants. "California has to decide what it wants," he said.

Regarding electricity restructuring in general, Abraham noted that Bush had said some aspects of restructuring need to be addressed, but the nominee added that the new administration has "no timeline" for introducing restructuring legislation. He said he didn't expect to have a proposed bill to present to Congress quickly.

Summing up the new team's broad energy views, Abraham said, "President-elect Bush and I are deeply committed to developing an energy policy that includes increasing domestic production of energy in an environmentally responsible manner, increasing ouruse of renewable energy, decreasing our reliance on imported oil and developing new technologies that can conserve fossil fuels and reduce energy-related pollution."

On environmental cleanup of the Dept. of Energy's former nuclear weapons complex, Abraham said the job is difficult, but added "I think we can do a better job of accelerating cleanup and closure of those sites that are surplus to DOE's needs."

He also said he didn't support privatizing federal power administrations, but on another topic, he said that Bush backs clean-coal technologies.

Abraham observed that in the Senate he had co-sponsored legislation to abolish DOE. But he said he has changed his views, explaining that "a number of new developments have occurred that either significantly addressed these concerns or have put them in a new light." He said they include "the changing energy situation" and last year's National Nuclear Security Administration Act. That law set up a new agency within DOE that reports to a new chief and is charged with overseeing such tasks as security at DOE's national labs.

Panel members uniformly endorsed Abraham for the DOE post, but said he will have many rough issues to deal with. Domenici said the job is "probably as onerous as any in American history."