DOE nominee mum on carbon tax

Energy Department (DOE) Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz ducked a question during Tuesday’s Senate confirmation hearing about whether he supports a carbon tax.

Moniz downplayed a 2008 open letter he penned to President Obama that advocated imposing “carbon dioxide emissions pricing, most likely through a cap-and-trade system.”

The physicist and former DOE official said the political dynamics of that time were different.

“That was a time in which there were bipartisan discussions of cap-and-trade systems, and I noted what the implications of that would be,” Moniz said Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Moniz was responding to a line of questioning from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

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A carbon tax has little political traction, but has underscored the divide between liberals and conservatives on climate issues. Republicans and centrist Democrats say such a tax would slow the economy, and burden the nation’s poorest people.

Democrats, however, say such a measure would reduce carbon emissions, in turn slowing climate change and improving public health.

Moniz attempted to circumvent the subject, noting the Obama administration has ruled out a carbon tax, and said the energy department “is not the locus of discussions about such fiscal policies.”

Instead, Moniz emphasized that the department’s “principal job is [to] push the technology innovation to get the cost of the low-carbon technologies as low as possible.”

Moniz worked Tuesday to build support for his nomination to replace departing Energy chief Steven Chu, and got a warm reception from senators on the Energy and Natural Resources panel.

He spoke of the importance of energy sources ranging from coal to wind, natural gas to nuclear, and stressed the need to “leverage” federal funding to move new technologies into the marketplace.

If confirmed by the Senate, Moniz would take the helm of an agency that has taken a political beating for giving federal dollars to green energy firms that later went belly-up.

Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) warned Moniz that the department’s spending practices must change.

“The bottom line is the taxpayers need more protection when it comes to federal financing,” Wyden said.

Moniz agreed that DOE loan programs needed revisions, but said many federal investments in clean-energy technology are paying dividends.

“In the low-carbon agenda, first, I think in some places we are seeing remarkable cost reductions occurring already,” Moniz said, referring to wind and solar energy.

Moniz faced questions from senators about natural-gas exports, a top concern of Wyden and other senators on the Energy panel.

The nominee did not shed much light on his views on natural-gas exports, though he did say reviews of the sales would need to consider effects on the domestic market and the “cumulative impact.”

Business groups and others want the White House to expand exports of natural gas, arguing the trade would boost jobs and bring in more revenue to government coffers.

But some Democrats and manufacturers worry sending more natural gas overseas would raise domestic prices, harming U.S. manufacturers who are benefiting from abundant and affordable energy supplies.

Moniz also would enter into discussions regarding the nation’s nuclear waste stockpile, and was pressed often on that subject Tuesday by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

Moniz said he supports many of the recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, on which he served.

The panel, formed by Obama in 2010, suggested moving nuclear waste to interim storage sites and allowing states to apply to become the nation’s long-term repository for nuclear waste, among other items.

Wyden is working on nuclear waste legislation that uses the Blue Ribbon Commission report as its basis. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the Senate Energy Committee’s top Republican, are also involved in that effort.

The Energy panel has yet to schedule a vote on advancing Moniz's nomination to the full Senate, but Wyden signaled it could happen soon.

“The sooner our committee can vote to recommend Dr. Moniz, the sooner he can get to work,” Wyden said in a statement after the hearing.

— This story was first posted at 1:09 p.m. and has been updated.

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