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Ernest Moniz, MIT physicist, nominated as energy secretary

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It’s tempting to think that President Obama picked Ernest Moniz on Monday to be his next energy secretary because Moniz’s long wavy mop of mostly-white hair might distract people who have been obsessed with Michelle Obama’s bangs.

But Moniz, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also lends Obama’s Cabinet scientific heft and brings prior Washington experience. At MIT, he has directed the school’s Energy Initiative, where he oversaw reports on almost every aspect of energy. And he has been a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Moniz, who served as associate director of the White House office of science and technology policy and as undersecretary of energy under President Bill Clinton, is also devoted to the “all-of-the-above” strategy for energy that Obama has embraced. In a voluminous written and spoken record, Moniz has come out in favor of nuclear power, research into carbon capture and storage for coal, renewable energy and shale gas produced by hydraulic fracturing.

Like outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Moniz is alarmed about climate change and devoted to funding scientific research into low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuel.

“He brings expertise, experience in a prior administration and real science credibility,” said Ian Bowles, former Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs and now a managing director of venture firm WindSail Capital. “You can argue about whether you want to have a scientist, but within that food group he’s an excellent choice.”

But over the past couple of weeks, many environmentalists and some prominent renewable energy experts have tried to block the nomination of Moniz because of an MIT report supporting “fracking” — as hydraulic fracturing is commonly known — and because major oil and gas companies, including BP, Shell, ENI and Saudi Aramco, provided as much as $25 million each to the MIT Energy Initiative. Other research money came from a foundation bankrolled by shale gas giant Chesapeake Energy.

“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,” Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement Monday.

Ironically, the Energy Department has no jurisdiction over fracking policy. The Environmental Protection Agency is weighing whether to impose new regulations under the Clean Water and Clean Air acts. The Interior Department owns many of the lands that oil companies want to exploit and is devising standards for fracking in those areas. State governments currently handle most regulation.

But the Energy Department issues licenses for terminals exporting liquefied natural gas, which some industries would rather keep at home to keep prices low. Moniz was co-chair of an MIT study that recommended that “the U.S. should not erect barriers to natural gas imports or exports.”

“I think the good news is he can hit the ground running,” said Carol Browner, formerly Obama’s climate and energy czar. “He knows the function of the agency, the power of the agency and its tools.”

“In some ways you could not find a more perfect guy than Ernie,” said Sue Tierney, an energy consultant at The Analysis Group. “He knows a lot about a very wide range of things within the DOE mission, almost more than any person on earth.”

But, she added, his challenge would lie “more with the almost inherently impossible nature of the job.”

More than 60 percent of the Energy Department’s budget is devoted to maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and managing cleanup efforts at sites such as the decommissioned plant in Hanford, Wash., that earlier produced material for nuclear weapons. The department also funds national laboratories, sets appliance standards and aids state-level energy efficiency programs.

“Think of DOE as a holding company with very disparate pieces of business,” said Tierney.

While Chu had tens of billions of dollars in grants and loan guarantees to sprinkle over different energy technology firms under the economic recovery act, Moniz will have fewer resources. Unless that changes, the secretary’s job will be largely a bully pulpit.

The grandparents of Moniz, who would be the third consecutive scientist or engineer to head the Energy Department, came to the United States from the Azores, and Moniz grew up speaking a little Portuguese, he told a local newspaper in the 1990s. After graduating from Boston College, he earned a doctorate in theoretical physics from Stanford University. He joined the MIT faculty in 1973 and ran its nuclear accelerator and later its physics department.

In 1995, he joined the Clinton administration, then returned to MIT, whose president, Susan Hockfield, was trying to make energy research one of the university’s principal endeavors. Moniz became director of the MIT Energy Initiative. In that role, Moniz has commented on almost everything.

He warned Chilean leaders recently that mushrooming electricity demand could lead to a “catastrophic increase in the temperature” of the planet.

Driven by concerns about climate, Moniz favors nuclear power despite the catastrophe that Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami inflicted on that country, in part by destroying its Fukushima nuclear power plant.

“It would be a mistake ... to let Fukushima cause governments to abandon nuclear power and its benefits,” he wrote in a Foreign Affairs article in late 2011. “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 has said that he favors federal assistance to build several new nuclear power plants this decade to give industry a better idea of economic costs.

Moniz also served as a member of Chu’s Blue Ribbon Commission, tasked to figure out what to do with nuclear reactor waste after the Obama administration ended work on the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada. Moniz said that moving spent nuclear fuel from pools to dry casks provided a relatively safe, compact solution that “buys time” to figure out something longer-lasting.

In a video interview posted on the Switch Energy Project Web site, Moniz said it was important to figure out a way to put a price on carbon emissions, making sure it addressed equity issues. “If you take one simple thing, that’s the direction I think we need to go in,” he said.

“What I believe is if we squeeze down on carbon, we squeeze up on cost, and it brings along a push toward efficiency; it brings along with it a push toward clean technology; it brings along with it a push toward security,” he said.

Energy efficiency is also a priority, Moniz said. “The most important thing is lowering your use of energy in ways that actually save you money,” he said. “It sounds trivial, but putting out lights really does matter.”

Moniz said that “I will admit to being very bullish on solar in the long term. It just has so many features, including the fact that even though it’s intermittent, at least it tends to be on when you want it.”

But for the foreseeable future, Moniz said, oil and gas will remain dominant features of the world energy picture.

In the introduction to a report on shale gas, Moniz wrote that “natural gas truly is a bridge to a low-carbon future.”

Moniz added: “In the very long run, very tight carbon constraints will likely phase out natural gas power generation in favor of zero-carbon or extremely low-carbon energy sources such as renewables, nuclear power or natural gas and coal with carbon capture and storage. For the next several decades, however, natural gas will play a crucial role in enabling very substantial reductions in carbon emissions.”

That report came out shortly after one by Robert Howarth, a Cornell professor of ecology and environmental biology, who wrote that methane leaks made emissions from shale gas operations so high that they offset the climate benefits of replacing coal with gas.

Experts from MIT, where Howarth received his doctorate, criticized his report. Howarth said last week that the energy institute was “way too cozy with industry, and I think that’s affected their scholarship, and I’m worried about what that would mean.”

More broadly, Howarth said that Moniz is “clearly a believer that our strategy should be all of the above. I just think that’s the wrong policy.” Howarth predicted: “That’s going to lead to climate disaster. Shale gas is probably the worst of the fuels to use if you’re worried about climate change. It’s the wrong policy for a president concerned about climate change.”

Other renewable-energy advocates fault Moniz for stressing research instead of infrastructure and financing. In a posting on the Web site GreentechMedia, Jigar Shah, former chief executive at a solar installation firm and now a consultant, wrote: “With the likely nomination of Ernest Moniz as the Secretary of Energy, President Obama has chosen invention over deployment — and R&D over job creation and carbon reduction.”

But other energy experts said that Moniz was well suited for the job.

Bowles said, “He knows the department, which is a big plus because it’s complicated and involves a lot of nuclear issues, and he’s an expert on those issues.”

“Outside maybe Secretary Chu, probably nobody who knows more about various aspects of energy than Ernie does. He is a policy guy,” said Charles Ebinger, an energy security expert at the Brookings Institution. “He might be a little too academic for what we need as energy secretary right now. If the president really decided to really embrace the unconventional oil and gas revolution, he will need someone who can go out and sell this to the American people.”

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