New Energy secretary a shift from Chu


New Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is taking a less aggressive tack with Congress than his predecessor Steven Chu.

Moniz has pitched energy efficiency to Congress and the public in his first days on the job, highlighting an issue that some experts say could get traction in the GOP-held House.

It's a sharp turn from Chu, who immediately pitched a sweeping cap-and-trade bill to Congress in President Obama's first term, when he benefitted from a Democratic-House and Senate.

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The difference has been noticed by groups often at odds with the Obama administration.

“He’s much more comfortable going in having the conversations to push legislation,” Christopher Guith, vice president for policy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, told The Hill.

The Chamber supports the energy efficiency bill being pushed by the administration, which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but much more incrementally than a bill capping emissions.

“He’s not too proud to do the grinding work of educating members of Congress and explaining why their support is necessary,” Guith said.

Moniz has at times used similar rhetoric on climate change as Chu, the Nobel Prize-winner who described it as a “moral” obligation in his departing email to DOE staff.

The new secretary this week said the topic is “not debatable” and that the administration would “move forward on our climate agenda.”

Yet Moniz has shown a more pragmatic side that reflects his years serving in the Clinton administration’s Energy Department and as an outside expert for President Obama. He’s also signaled a willingness to work with industry and Republicans, who were always cool to Chu.

“Republicans respect him (Moniz) as well. He’s not a shiny object. He’s someone that’s a known quality,” said Guith, comparing Moniz to Chu.

Moniz met last week with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who chairs the subcommittee on Energy and Power, to discuss a range of energy topics.

That kind of outreach to Republicans — especially those in the House, who have opposed much of Obama’s energy agenda — will be instrumental in getting legislation approved, said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), a member of the House Energy Committee.

“I know the secretary has a good reputation. He wants to get things done, and already is working in a very active way on the Hill already,” Welch told The Hill. “I think that will be helpful.”

Business groups, environmentalists and other insiders say Moniz is off to a good start by stumping for comprehensive energy-efficiency legislation.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), would encourage energy efficiency upgrades at residential, commercial and industry facilities, as well as within the federal government.

It has backing from business and environmental groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the Chamber, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Business Roundtable, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Alliance to Save Energy.

“I think having the secretary support this adds to the sort of groundswell behind it. He’s definitely someone that has sort of wide support from industry, and he was confirmed 97-0. This should really be a 97-0 bill,” Joe Kruger, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s energy and environment director, told The Hill.

Those groups say it’s a welcomed change to have the White House touting energy initiatives after keeping a low profile in the years following cap-and-trade’s failure, as Chu was rarely dispatched to Capitol Hill after the bill’s collapse.

“It’s certainly been a good and refreshing thing seeing the new Energy secretary taking proactive steps,” Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy with the National Association of Manufacturers, told The Hill.

Other events materialized to make achieving Obama’s energy goals more difficult during Chu’s tenure.

After cap-and-trade floundered in 2010, the agency doubled down on promoting the 2009 federal stimulus, in which the agency awarded clean-tech firms billions in loans, loan guarantees and grants.

But some of those backfired, most notably the $535 million loan guarantee to solar panel-maker Solyndra, which went belly-up in 2011. That created a political headache for Obama and Chu, and cemented Republican animosity toward the DOE chief and Obama’s green jobs initiatives.

Running with Shaheen-Portman could help Moniz get off to a better start.

“We’re looking at the political reality where there’s a lot of deeply entrenched views on energy and environment,” Eisenberg said. “Let’s take a victory where we can get it and then build on that.”