MIT physicist seen as a front-runner to replace Chu

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2013

rnest Moniz, a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a top candidate to replace outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu, according to industry sources.

President Obama is considering tapping Moniz, a nuclear physicist, to replace Chu, who announced his resignation earlier this month.

Moniz, 69, served as the Energy Department’s undersecretary during the Clinton administration and has advised Obama on central components of the administration’s energy plan, including a retooling of the country’s stalled nuclear waste program, energy research and development, and unconventional gas.

Moniz is seen as a smart pick because of his deep understanding of both political and scientific issues, with one observer calling him “Steven Chu without the Nobel Prize but with a lot more experience in politics.” He is currently directing MIT’s Energy Initiative, a research group that focuses on innovative ways to produce power while curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

In a 2009 alumni interview published on Boston College’s website, Moniz noted that he learned to balance both political and scientific demands while working in the Clinton administration. “Physics sometimes looked easy compared to doing the people’s business,” he said.

The professor’s views have been under scrutiny since Reuters first reported he was a frontrunner for the DOE spot last week (Greenwire, Feb. 1)

Moniz told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2011 that the country’s newfound glut of natural gas could indeed be a “bridge” to more low-carbon sources of energy during the next couple of decades. But he also noted that gas would eventually become too carbon-intensive in light of new emissions reductions, highlighting the need for a “robust innovation program for” zero-carbon sources of energy.

Moniz also testified that environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing are “challenging but manageable.”

His comments have drawn the ire of Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit clean air and water advocacy group that maintains Moniz is a proponent of fracking because he supports using gas as a “bridge fuel.”

“This is not the person we need as our country’s Energy Secretary at this critical moment,” the group wrote. “We need a visionary leader who can enact policies that move us away from intensive fossil fuel extraction, such as fracking, and toward a renewable energy future.”

Erika Johnsen, author of the conservative website “Hot Air,” wrote that Obama’s other potential DOE picks could be more formidable opponents of fracking than Moniz. “At least it isn’t one of those fossil fuel-loathing, hardcore eco-zealots currently lobbying President Obama so hard against the practice of hydraulic fracturing altogether,” she wrote.

Steve Everley, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, a research arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, also suggested that Moniz could be something of a compromise pick.

“Groups opposed to responsible natural gas development seem to be scared of him, which suggests his views are probably in line with those of state regulators, numerous federal officials and countless other experts who have affirmed that hydraulic fracturing is safe,” Everley said.

Daniel Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said that if selected, Moniz would carry out the president’s agenda.

“The next secretary of energy is going to reflect the administration’s views, and its approach seems to be that fracking should proceed but in a way that doesn’t worsen air, water and climate pollution,” Weiss said. “Dr. Moniz’s views of this are going to reflect the administration’s policies. I suspect he will be supportive of fracking with increased environmental protections.”

Moniz is also a member of Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and was appointed to the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which recommended last year that the federal government retool the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to site one or more temporary nuclear waste storage locations and a permanent repository.

Moniz received a bachelor’s of science degree summa cum laude in physics from Boston College, a doctorate in theoretical physics from Stanford University, and honorary doctorates from the University of Athens, the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and Michigan State University. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and received the 1998 Seymour Cray HPCC Industry Recognition Award for vision and leadership in advancing scientific simulation.

Rumors have also been swirling that Obama is also considering ex-Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D), former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) to head DOE, but their status remains unclear.

Granholm, for one, told “Platts Energy Week TV” yesterday that she’s transitioning out of her TV show and may soon serve as the national clean energy spokeswoman for the Pew Charitable Trust.

When asked if she could be nominated to replace Chu — or Ray LaHood as secretary of Transportation — Granholm said she’s made comments that may have rubbed some Republicans who would need to confirm her the wrong way, and that she may “be a little bit of a tough choice.”