Yotta Know Nominees – Part 3: Ernest Moniz

Yotta Know Nominees – or YKN – is my three-part series focusing on President Obama’s recent nominations to key positions in his Cabinet and the federal government.

On February 6, REI Chief Executive Sally Jewell was nominated as Secretary of the Department of the Interior to replace Ken Salazar. On March 4, President Obama nominated EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Gina McCarthy to head the Agency, replacing Lisa Jackson. In the same White House ceremony, MIT physicist Ernest Moniz was nominated for Secretary of the Department of Energy, to succeed Steven Chu.

Once confirmed, the decisions these three individuals make are certain to have an impact on Garfield County, where we feel the effects of energy production, air & water pollution, and climate change on a daily basis. It’s well worth our time to get to know the nominees.

MIT President Susan Hockfield and Saudi Aramco President and CEO Khalid A. Al-Falih signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on June 18, 2012, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, providing a framework that will greatly expand the research and education partnership between MIT and Saudi Aramco. From left: Abdullatif A. Al-Othman, Susan Hockfield, Ali I. Al-Naimi, Khalid A. Al-Falih and MIT physicist Ernest Moniz (nominee for Secretary of  Energy).

MIT President Susan Hockfield and Saudi Aramco President and CEO Khalid A. Al-Falih signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on June 18, 2012, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, providing a framework that will greatly expand the research and education partnership between MIT and Saudi Aramco. From left: Abdullatif A. Al-Othman, Susan Hockfield, Ali I. Al-Naimi, Khalid A. Al-Falih and MIT physicist Ernest Moniz (nominee for Secretary of Energy).

Part 3: Ernest Moniz – nominee for Secretary of the Department of Energy

Okay. First we have to get past the hair. Yes. It’s 2013 and this time around we’re not talking about the women’s hair because the nominee with the hairdo is the only guy in the group, Ernest Moniz. Gotta love it. The Twittersphere erupted with reactions to his “do” —  Nominated Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s Crazy Hairdo.

What really matters is what’s going on underneath that hairdo. Once again we turn to the National Journal to cut through the clutter and give us the background highlights:  Who Is Ernest Moniz, Obama’s Choice for Energy Secretary?

As controversial as EPA nominee Gina McCarthy is among Republicans, the coal industry, and the oil & gas industry, Ernest Moniz is equally controversial among environmentalists. Environmental groups are wary of Moniz because of his support of natural gas and nuclear power. As head of the Physics Department at MIT, Moniz has been an advocate of nuclear energy and shale gas during this time of increasing debate over the safety and future of both. His MIT Energy Initiative received funding from several oil companies, including BP, Shell and Chevron.

Food & Water Watch has organized a campaign against the Moniz nomination:  Don’t Appoint a Fracking Proponent as Energy Secretary.  Along with Americans Against Fracking, and other fracking opponents, Food & Watch sent a letter to President Obama which begins:  “While we appreciate your recent public comments about the need to address climate change, appointing Dr. Moniz, a proponent of hydraulic fracturing with close ties to the oil and gas industry, would be a major step backwards.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune issued a cautious statement:

“In his role as Secretary of Energy, we urge Mr. Moniz to prioritize clean, renewable energy as climate solutions over destructive fossil fuels and boondoggles like liquefied natural gas exports. 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.”

More concerns about the Moniz nomination:

Ernest Moniz, Considered Fracking Shill By Some Environmentalists, Sparks Concern Amid Energy Department Nomination

Fracking the Energy Department

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members have remained cautiously neutral about the Moniz nomination:  Key Senate Panel Leaders Withhold Judgment on Moniz. Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) had this to say:

“I look forward to discussing with Ernest Moniz the many issues before the Energy Department that are so vital to the nation’s energy security. That includes: re-engaging Dr. Moniz over the problems with cleaning up nuclear waste at the Hanford Site, finding creative ways to promote new technologies and harness the ingenuity of America’s energy innovators, and examining the diverse opportunities to attack climate change and transition to a low-carbon economy.”

But not everyone is unhappy about the Moniz nomination. The natural gas industry is thrilled:  Natural Gas Seen Gaining With Obama’s Fracking-Friendly Nominees

Solar Energy Industries Association Chief Executive Rone Resch said Moniz would have a key role in boosting the fortunes of solar in the US:

“The DOE has been a critically important partner in the solar industry’s efforts to make solar technology more affordable and help break down barriers to solar deployment across the nation to establish America as a leader in clean energy. Dr. Moniz’s prior leadership at DOE and MIT will be instrumental in promoting the innovation across the solar value chain to develop a strong clean energy economy.”

But back to the point of this series — what the Moniz nomination means to the residents of Garfield County. Pretty much everything you need to know is in this Wonkblog post:  Is fracking a ‘bridge’ to a clean-energy future? Ernest Moniz thinks so.

And here’s the most important part:

Moniz, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has argued that natural gas can serve as a “bridge fuel” to a lower-carbon future. He outlined his views at length during a 2011 Senate hearing on a report he co-authored, “The Future of Natural Gas.”

“In broad terms,” Moniz testified, “we find that, given the large amounts of natural gas available in the U.S. at moderate cost … natural gas can indeed play an important role over the next couple of decades (together with demand management) in economically advancing a clean energy system.”

Here’s how this “bridge” is supposed to work: In the near future, cheap natural gas will elbow aside coal in the U.S. electricity sector. Since burning natural gas for electricity emits about half the carbon-dioxide that burning coal does, this will curtail U.S. emissions a bit. (Indeed, that’s already happening.) That, in turn, buys us some time to make the more arduous shift to even cleaner forms of energy, like solar or wind or even nuclear.

Indeed, in his testimony Moniz argued that natural gas would need to phase out by 2050, and that ”we must continue to invest in research in carbon-free sources—renewables, nuclear and CCS [carbon capture and storage] for both coal and natural gas.”

Some climate hawks have looked skeptically on this whole notion. They’ll point out that natural gas is still a fossil fuel, capable of quickly heating the planet. What’s more, cheap shale gas could thwart the development of solar and wind. And plus, our natural-gas infrastructure still leaks an unknown amount of heat-trapping methane, which means that the climate benefits of natural gas may well be oversold.

So what’s the best way to sift through this debate? Perhaps some hard numbers can help. That’s what energy expert Michael Levi tried to do in his recent paper, “Climate consequences of natural gas as a bridge fuel,” published in Climatic Change.

As the title suggests, Levi tried to model the actual climate consequences of using natural gas as a bridge. And what he found was striking. Say we want to stabilize the amount of carbon in the atmosphere at about 450 parts per million — giving us a shot at limiting global warming below 2°C. If that’s the goal, then the world can only use natural gas for a short while. Gas consumption would have to peak by 2020 or 2030. A very short bridge.

In other words, the Moniz view of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy does not take into account the long-term damage to public health, air and water quality, and the environment. Nor does his view factor in the costs of health care and environmental clean-up. This is important to us because we have to live here after the operators move on to wetter basins and leave the mess behind.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has not yet scheduled the Ernest Moniz confirmation hearing but when they do it will be posted on the events calendar at the Committee’s website.

Part 1:  Sally Jewell — nominee for Secretary of the Interior

Part 2:  Gina McCarthy — nominee for Administrator of the EPA

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