Scientist trumps politicians again for Energy Secretary job

by Teresa Hansen

Although rumors that U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu would retire at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s second term have circulated for months, many, especially renewable energy and energy efficiency advocates, were disappointed Feb. 1 when Chu announced his resignation.

Speculation about Chu’s replacement became widespread. It didn’t last long. On March 4, Obama announced Ernest Moniz as Chu’s replacement, making it clear the president intends to keep the Department of Energy (DOE) on the same path it’s been on since he took office. A few environmental groups are unhappy about the appointment, however, because they believe Moniz is an advocate of nuclear energy and shale gas—two energy sources with unpredictable futures, given Fukushima and fracking issues.

Moniz, a theoretical physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he heads the school’s Energy Initiative, won’t become energy secretary until the Senate approves his nomination. Most experts predict Moniz will pass the formality with little trouble.

I would like to share with you the following 10 facts about Moniz compiled by Electric Light & Power Online Editor Jeff Postelwait:

  1. Moniz is a nuclear physicist and an advocate for the safe use of nuclear power as an energy source. In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Moniz said it would be a mistake not to pursue a nuclear-friendly energy policy in the U.S.
  2. Obama is the second president for whom Moniz has worked. Moniz was President Bill Clinton’s undersecretary of the DOE from 1997 to 2001. In addition, he served as an associate director for science in Clinton’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.
  3. Moniz has a “wait and see” approach to new techniques in natural gas extraction such as fracking. He said the risks of such techniques are challenging but manageable. In addition, he has referred to natural gas as a bridge fuel that can take the country to a future low-carbon energy portfolio (away from coal).
  4. Moniz handled several issues at the DOE, including oversight of science and energy policy, nuclear weapons proliferation and stockpile stewardship, nuclear fuel cycles, including waste disposal, and solar energy in a low-carbon world.
  5. In a story about carbon capture and storage in The Washington Post, Moniz was quoted as saying in 2009 that there is no credible pathway to meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets without cutting carbon dioxide from existing coal-fired power plants.
  6. As director of MIT’s Energy Initiative, Moniz has some financial ties to the energy industry via the research group’s $125 million in donations from the oil and gas industry since 2006, according to reports. Founding members of the organization include BP, Saudi Aramco and Shell.
  7. Moniz probably will have less funding than Chu, whose tenure at the DOE was marked by the early passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which significantly expanded the department’s operating budget.
  8. Moniz’s grandparents migrated to the U.S. from the Azores, an archipelago that is an autonomous region of Portugal. He grew up speaking some Portuguese.
  9. Moniz serves in Chu’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which was tasked with finding new solutions for storing and disposing of nuclear waste. Moniz advocated transferring spent nuclear fuel from pools to dry casks.
  10. Moniz said he is “bullish” on solar power, adding, “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.” He said, however, that fossil fuels such as oil and gas will remain at the forefront of the world’s energy picture for the foreseeable future.

Teresa Hansen, editor in chief

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