By Ben Geman - 02/22/13 10:00 AM EST
President Obama’s rumored choice for Energy secretary is giving heartburn to some in the environmental movement.
Ernest Moniz, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and familiar presence in Washington, has emerged as the front-runner to replace Steven Chu as Obama’s energy chief.
That’s not sitting well with green advocates, who say Moniz’s support for natural gas is at odds with the risks of “fracking,” the controversial drilling process, and the need for tough steps to address climate change.
“Moniz is a status quo pick at a time when we can’t afford the status quo,” said Tyson Slocum, who heads the energy program at Public Citizen.
Sources tracking the selection process say Obama is leaning strongly toward picking Moniz, who served as undersecretary of Energy in the Clinton administration and currently directs the MIT Energy Initiative.
The Cabinet decision arrives at time when environmentalists are putting intense pressure on the president to confront global warming. They held a major rally last weekend in Washington, D.C., urging Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and take steps to reduce carbon emissions.
Moniz has argued that natural gas can play a major role in curbing greenhouse gas emissions and serve as a “bridge” to a low-carbon future, riling activists who believe that fracking creates risks to water supplies and other harms.
A major 2011 study the MIT energy program released said that environmental risks of developing gas from shale formations, which is achieved through fracking, are “challenging but manageable.”
Bill Snape, the senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity, said he’s concerned that Moniz’s support for natural gas could bring a shift in focus away from the development of renewable electricity and smart-grid technologies.
“The concern I have with him is, he has the veneer of this MIT PhD scientist, that somehow he is going to be objective, and in reality he could very well be a political hack for the natural gas industry,” Snape said.
The group Food & Water Watch has launched a petition urging Obama not to nominate Moniz.
“Moniz is a proponent of using natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ to renewable energy. But in reality, fracking for natural gas only prolongs our dependence on fossil fuels, while contributing to global climate change and polluting our scarce fresh water resources,” the group said.
The tensions over Moniz’s possible nomination reflect a broader conflict over natural gas and its impact on climate change.
Natural gas emits much less carbon than coal when burned for electricity, but some critics — including Al Gore — fear that the methane from production sites will negate that advantage, since it is a potent greenhouse gas.
A 2011 report by outside advisers to the Energy Department (DOE) said that negative view of gas is “not widely accepted,” but noted that more data collection and analysis is needed on the fuel's climate footprint.
Moniz is also pro-nuclear, writing in 2011 that it would be a “mistake” to allow Japan’s nuclear disaster to “cause governments to abandon nuclear power and its benefits.”
“As greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, finding ways to generate power cleanly, affordably, and reliably is becoming an even more pressing imperative. Nuclear power is not a silver bullet, but it is a partial solution that has proved workable on a large scale,” he wrote.
The U.S. branch of Greenpeace took shots at Moniz over Twitter when his name became prominent in reports about potential replacements for Chu.
On Feb. 8, the group urged Obama to fill his Cabinet with “real leaders” and not “fracking cheerleaders,” and, citing Moniz’s views on nuclear energy, asked Obama “what are you thinking?”
But the criticism of Moniz is hardly bubbling up from across the environmental movement.
A number of the largest, most politically connected groups, such as the National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, have not expressed concerns about his selection.
And environmentalists can also find things to like in Moniz’s background.
The 2011 MIT gas study says that for greenhouse gas reductions greater than 50 percent, which advocates say will eventually be needed to avoid the most dangerous climate change, displacing coal with natural gas won’t always cut it.
“For more stringent CO2 emissions reductions, further de-carbonization of the energy sector will be required,” he told a Senate committee in 2011, citing the need to move to renewables and other non-emitting sources of energy.
His research also supported putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions, which is the goal of many major climate proposals.
And on fracking, the MIT group’s study backs mandatory disclosure of chemicals used in the process and minimizing environmental impacts through regulation.
But some environmentalists' views on fracking go well beyond calls for disclosure and oversight.
The Sierra Club, one the nation’s biggest groups, offered a warning to the potential DOE nominee.
“Were Mr. Moniz to be appointed secretary of Energy, we would stress to him 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,” said Melinda Pierce, the Sierra Club’s legislative director.
It’s unclear how much sway Moniz would exert over Obama’s second-term climate and energy agenda.
While he may have Obama’s ear, the DOE secrtary lacks formal jurisdiction over a number of major energy and climate topics that will confront the president in his second term.
It’s the Interior Department that decides what federal lands and waters to make available for drilling and imposes some of the regulations, while the Environmental Protection Agency handles potential carbon rules for the nation’s coal-fired power plants.
While Chu brought high-profile focus to green energy, a huge portion of the Energy Department’s budget is devoted to securing and managing the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and cleaning up contamination at sites that produced nuclear materials.
But DOE also has a major role in supporting green technology development. And the department is weighing a series of controversial industry applications that together would greatly expand U.S. natural gas exports.
Greenpeace, in a statement Thursday, declined to again criticize Moniz directly, but fired several shots across the bow on energy exports and other topics.
"The Department of Energy will play a key role in determining if industry is allowed to undercut President Obama's climate commitments by exporting fossil fuels abroad,” said Kyle Ash, Greenpeace’s senior legislative representative. “Whoever leads DOE should ensure that investments in safe solutions like renewable energy and improved efficiency become central to DOE's mission.”
Moniz’s MIT Energy Initiative has attracted attention for its support from major energy companies such as BP, Shell, Chevron and others.
A spokeswoman for the MIT group said that as of late 2011, 74 percent of the Initiative's outside-funded research projects were about renewable energy, energy efficiency, carbon management and storage technologies, “innovation and investment,” and other areas such nanotechnology, basic energy sciences and biotech.
Moniz would replace another physicist, the Nobel Prize-winning Chu, but if confirmed he would arrive with much more Washington, D.C., experience than his predecessor.
In addition to his work in the Clinton administration, Moniz remains a familiar face in Washington, testifying at a number of Capitol Hill hearings through the years.
Moniz is currently a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and served on the “blue ribbon” commission on nuclear waste policy that Obama created in 2010 and issued a final report a year ago.