New Era for Energy Department Expected Under a Secretary Moniz

Obama's nominee faces a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.

With stimulus funding for clean energy at an end, climate-change policy dead in Congress, and harsh budget cuts looming over all agencies thanks to the sequestration, the days of President Obama’s vision of the Energy Department as a green juggernaut have probably come to an end.

But Ernest Moniz, who faces a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday morning as Obama’s choice to become the next Energy secretary, would be likely to steer the department into a new era, one in which climate change still plays a key role in guiding its mission but so, too, do policies connected to the nation’s recent boom in oil and natural-gas development.

The MIT professor and former Energy undersecretary in the Clinton administration is also likely to renew the agency’s traditional focus on nuclear energy, nuclear waste, and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

Before Obama took office, the Energy Department had been widely viewed as a backwater agency. But people close to Moniz say they expect him to revitalize the department’s original mission while also taking on new issues involving global trade and commerce.

Like the man he would succeed, Nobel laureate Steven Chu, Moniz is a renowned physicist with serious research chops: He is director of the Energy Initiative at MIT, where he has been on the faculty since 1973. Unlike Chu, however, Moniz has a long record of supporting a broad portfolio of energy sources, including natural gas. He also has a strong background in nuclear issues, making him a better fit considering the agency’s historic nuclear portfolio.

Also unlike Chu, Moniz is viewed as a pragmatic and politically savvy operator who knows his way around Washington.

“I think it will be a very different agency than it was in the first term,” said Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution, who has worked with Moniz on energy policy for many years.

“Ernie knows climate change, but also unconventional oil and gas and coal and nuclear. He will push the president towards a more balanced policy. I think you’ll see a focus on unconventional oil and gas and not as much on renewables.”

Frank Verrastro, director of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “He’ll be a more complete secretary of Energy. He brings different skills. He’s focused on climate and clean energy, but he’s aware of what’s going on in the oil and gas space. It’s an opportunity for the administration to gain back some energy-policy stake.”

The nation’s energy picture has changed profoundly since 2008, when Obama appointed Chu to lead the DOE. Since then, a boom in unconventional oil and gas development, thanks to breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” technology has led to a dramatic increase in domestic oil and gas supply. Obama has been particularly bullish on natural gas as a one-two punch for his climate-change and economic goals: The fuel has half the carbon emissions of coal, and the new glut of it has lowered U.S. manufacturing costs.

The fossil-fuel industry, which regularly railed against Chu, has already indicated its openness to Moniz.

“Moniz seems to be a pragmatist on the important energy issues facing our nation including natural-gas development,” said John Krohn, a spokesman for Energy In Depth, which represents the gas-fracking industry in Washington. “When he arrives at DOE, he will join many senior-level Obama officials who have publicly stated that natural gas is an important fuel for our nation’s environment and economic future.”

Among the biggest policy decisions facing the Energy Department in the coming years will be the question of whether or not to grant permits for U.S. companies to begin exporting natural gas. Manufacturers fear that exporting the fuel will increase their prices, but foreign policy thinkers believe it could help increase U.S. muscle in Asia. Moniz is expected to be a key player in these decisions.

Nuclear-energy issues are also likely to get more attention under Moniz. While some environmentalists remain wary of nuclear energy, Moniz is among a group of thinkers who see nuclear power—which produces no carbon emissions—as a key piece of a future climate policy. While nuclear-waste issues were not a forte of Chu’s, Moniz was part of the blue-ribbon commission on nuclear waste that last year recommended building medium-term nuclear-waste storage facilities that could hold waste for up to a century.

“There will be more attention paid to nuclear waste and the nuclear stockpile,” said John Deutch, a professor at MIT and former head of the CIA who held senior positions in the Energy and Defense departments during the Carter and Clinton administrations, and who has worked with Moniz on energy issues for more than 30 years.

“He will have a much broader agenda, and he will be asked to have a broader agenda by President Obama,” Deutch said.

This article appeared in the Tuesday, April 9, 2013 edition of National Journal Daily.