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Kevin Bullis

A View from Kevin Bullis

Obama’s Pragmatic Pick for Energy Secretary

MIT’s Moniz wants action on climate change, but can also work with the fossil fuel industry.

  • March 4, 2013

Ernest Moniz, President Obama’s pick to replace Steven Chu as secretary, is a pragmatic choice. An MIT professor of physics and engineering systems and the head of the MIT Energy Initiative, Moniz believes climate change is a problem and he has the support of the Environmental Defense Fund. Yet he can work closely with the fossil fuel industry—MITEI’s founding members are major oil and gas companies—BP, Shell, Eni, and Saudi Aramco. And Moniz is no stranger to Washington, having served as associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. 

Supporters of shale gas will no doubt take comfort in the nomination. Under Moniz’s leadership, MITEI supported a report on natural gas that was influential in the debate on fracking, in part, because it was one of the earliest in-depth reports considering the shale gas boon in the United States. It concluded that fracking can be done relatively safely if proper procedures are followed. It also talks about the key role for natural gas as a “bridge” fuel that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by displacing coal while renewables and other low-carbon sources of energy are being developed.

Additionally, nuclear power might get renewed emphasis under Moniz. He chaired a key MIT report on nuclear energy, which speaks of nuclear as an important part of any viable plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Moniz has also spoken of the problems that arise from the lack of a predictable, long term energy policy in the United States. We may see an emphasis from Moniz on the formation of quasi-governmental agencies, which can be set up to depend less on the yearly funding cycle in Washington. They can also be set up to work closely with industry to develop energy technologies. More than one report co-authored by Moniz has called for setting up quasi-governmental groups, such as for dealing with nuclear waste and developing carbon capture and storage technologies.

In fact, President Obama recently proposed what amounts to a quasi-government agency—an Energy Security Trust Fund designed to develop alternative sources of energy for transportation (see “Energy R&D Faces a Cliff”). It would draw money from oil and gas leases, giving it a steady supply of money, and it seems geared to appeal both to advocates of electric vehicles and to the natural gas industry. I wouldn’t be surprised if Moniz, who has advised Obama, were involved in the Trust Fund proposal.

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