Moniz Picked For Energy: The Frack Man Cometh?

Ernest Moniz is President Obama’s pick to succeed Steven Chu to lead the U.S. Energy Department. It’s a selection that signals the president will continue to push for renewable energy development in his second term, but will do so in the “all of the above” context that has frustrated many environmentalists and climate-change activists.

A physicist, like Chu, Moniz has a history of studying and supporting energy sources that would help decrease greenhouse gas emissions, but his backing of nuclear power and of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” have become points of contention in some quarters, as has his willingness to accept research funding from fossil fuel interests for the MIT Energy Initiative that he directs.

moniz energy department

Ernest Moniz (image via MIT)

The Sierra Club this morning congratulated Moniz on his nomination, but hardly bubbled with enthusiasm.

“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,” the group said in a statement.

The gas issue, especially, has been concerning to activists. As attention began to focus on Moniz last month, Americans Against Fracking – a coalition of organizations including, Food & Water Watch and, yep, the actor Mark Ruffalo – pointedly asked Obama not to nominate Moniz. “(A)ctions speak louder than words and appointing a strong proponent of extracting dirty fossil fuels as our nation’s energy secretary will lead us in a wrong direction,” the group said in a letter to the president [PDF].

There was a bit of irony tucked away in the letter, however, as it wasn’t long ago that 350 founder Bill McKibben, in his book Eaarth, was writing that “in the United States, we’ve found some new supplies of natural gas, which is a good ‘bridge fuel’ between dirty coal and clean sun.”

The issue is a vexing one, no doubt; natural gas is largely replacing coal, and strictly in terms of carbon dioxide emissions in the production of electricity, it’s cleaner by half. Fears in the renewable industry that it could squeeze out wind and solar and other more purely clean forms of energy seem to be diminishing, as well; the solar power industry now says “natural gas and renewables complement each other very nicely,” and big wind sees things pretty much the same way. The idea there is that the ability of natural gas-fired power plants to ramp up and down more quickly will ease the way for more intermittent solar and wind on the grid.

Those opposed to natural gas expansion call this view willfully ignorant of the impact of extracting gas from the Earth. As Americans Against Fracking wrote:

The risks and impacts on air and water have been well documented and are supported by extensive research…. While effects on air and water are reason enough to reject fracking, research shows that drilling and fracking for natural gas contributes to climate change. The carbon dioxide emitted from burning natural gas contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change (Myhrvold and Caldeira, 2012). And, in addition to carbon dioxide, high-volume hydraulic fracturing releases significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere during the extraction, transport and processing of the gas. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 33 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over 100 years, and about 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years (Shindell et al. 2009).

Against that backdrop, Moniz presents himself not as a natural gas enthusiast, but as a pragmatist (much like the man who nominated him).

“There are real issues – water, methane, microseimicity, etc.,” Moniz said at a shale gas panel discussion in Texas last December. “As a rough, general statement I would say all of these are manageable, which should not be confused with managing them, and that’s going to be the real challenge.”

While activists fear that development of a more extensive gas infrastructure will yoke the U.S. to the fuel too deeply and for too long, Moniz seems to think it can be used and then abandoned – but only if renewables are aggressively pursued starting now.

“(W)hen it comes to carbon, gas is part of our solution at least for some time and we should take advantage of the time to innovate and bring down the cost of renewables,” he said at the Texas conference. “The worst thing will be to get time and not use it. And that I’m afraid is where we are happening.”

If confirmed as expected, Moniz will bring something to the job that Chu did not: experience in Washington. He served as under secretary of the Department of Energy from 1997 until January 2001 and, from 1995-97, as associate director for Science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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