Ernest Moniz is a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Denis Poroy/ )
It’s tempting to think that President Obama picked Ernest Moniz on Monday to be his next energy secretary because Moniz’s long wavy mop of mostly-white hair might distract people who have been obsessed with Michelle Obama’s bangs.
But Moniz, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also lends Obama’s Cabinet scientific heft and brings prior Washington experience. At MIT, he has directed the school’s Energy Initiative, where he oversaw reports on almost every aspect of energy. And he has been a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Moniz, who served as associate director of the White House office of science and technology policy and as undersecretary of energy under President Bill Clinton, is also devoted to the “all-of-the-above” strategy for energy that Obama has embraced. In a voluminous written and spoken record, Moniz has come out in favor of nuclear power, research into carbon capture and storage for coal, renewable energy and shale gas produced by hydraulic fracturing.
Like outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Moniz is alarmed about climate change and devoted to funding scientific research into low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuel.
“He brings expertise, experience in a prior administration and real science credibility,” said Ian Bowles, former Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs and now a managing director of venture firm WindSail Capital. “You can argue about whether you want to have a scientist, but within that food group he’s an excellent choice.”
But over the past couple of weeks, many environmentalists and some prominent renewable energy experts have tried to block the nomination of Moniz because of an MIT report supporting “fracking” — as hydraulic fracturing is commonly known — and because major oil and gas companies, including BP, Shell, ENI and Saudi Aramco, provided as much as $25 million each to the MIT Energy Initiative. Other research money came from a foundation bankrolled by shale gas giant Chesapeake Energy.
“We would stress to Mr. Moniz that an ‘all of the above’ energy policy only means ‘more of the same,’ and we urge him to leave dangerous nuclear energy and toxic fracking behind while focusing on safe, clean energy sources like wind and solar,” Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement Monday.
Ironically, the Energy Department has no jurisdiction over fracking policy. The Environmental Protection Agency is weighing whether to impose new regulations under the Clean Water and Clean Air acts. The Interior Department owns many of the lands that oil companies want to exploit and is devising standards for fracking in those areas. State governments currently handle most regulation.
But the Energy Department issues licenses for terminals exporting liquefied natural gas, which some industries would rather keep at home to keep prices low. Moniz was co-chair of an MIT study that recommended that “the U.S. should not erect barriers to natural gas imports or exports.”
“I think the good news is he can hit the ground running,” said Carol Browner, formerly Obama’s climate and energy czar. “He knows the function of the agency, the power of the agency and its tools.”
“In some ways you could not find a more perfect guy than Ernie,” said Sue Tierney, an energy consultant at The Analysis Group. “He knows a lot about a very wide range of things within the DOE mission, almost more than any person on earth.”
But, she added, his challenge would lie “more with the almost inherently impossible nature of the job.”
More than 60 percent of the Energy Department’s budget is devoted to maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and managing cleanup efforts at sites such as the decommissioned plant in Hanford, Wash., that earlier produced material for nuclear weapons. The department also funds national laboratories, sets appliance standards and aids state-level energy efficiency programs.
“Think of DOE as a holding company with very disparate pieces of business,” said Tierney.
While Chu had tens of billions of dollars in grants and loan guarantees to sprinkle over different energy technology firms under the economic recovery act, Moniz will have fewer resources. Unless that changes, the secretary’s job will be largely a bully pulpit.
The grandparents of Moniz, who would be the third consecutive scientist or engineer to head the Energy Department, came to the United States from the Azores, and Moniz grew up speaking a little Portuguese, he told a local newspaper in the 1990s. After graduating from Boston College, he earned a doctorate in theoretical physics from Stanford University. He joined the MIT faculty in 1973 and ran its nuclear accelerator and later its physics department.