Moniz defends Obama’s ‘practical, pragmatic’ climate strategy

Source: Colin Sullivan, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2013

NEW YORK — Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz used his first major policy address here yesterday to defend the president’s “all of the above” energy strategy.

The nuclear physicist turned Cabinet officer insisted that President Obama’s decision to support unconventional fossil fuel development should be viewed within the context of the administration’s Climate Action Plan, not as a cave-in to powerful energy interests.

Moniz called shale gas development the most “pragmatic” way to bridge to a cleaner energy future and move clear of coal. His comments were in many ways addressed to critics on the left who think the president is too cozy with the gas industry and not doing enough to push renewables.

But Moniz, in an address sponsored by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, pointed out that 80 percent of the United States’ energy supply is still derived from fossil fuels. He indicated that would be the case for some time to come.

“In the energy business, it’s extremely hard to see very, very rapid changes in deployment,” he said. “We have to be practical, pragmatic.”

Moniz was then heckled by one attendee who pressed the secretary on the subject of fugitive methane emissions from gas drilling platforms. The heckler shouted from the crowd, claiming that gas plus methane leakage equals a worse carbon problem than coal-fired power.

Moniz acknowledged the methane controversy but defended the domestic gas push, which he termed a “revolution” during his address. He said he had looked hard at the methane question during his time as a research director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and determined that gas was a cleaner substitute for coal in the short term.

“In the longer term, assuming we are cranking down hard on carbon emissions, then gas itself would have to have carbon capture,” he said. “That’s the classic definition of the bridge.”

Moniz then noted that the president’s Climate Action Plan includes a specific “call out” for non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases like methane. He said DOE is working within an interagency task force on the question and is in “very close contact” with the Environmental Defense Fund on the subject.

“We will see what comes,” he said.

The heckler wasn’t satisfied with the response and continued pressing from the crowd, citing data that suggest the gas industry is leaking methane outside at a higher clip than any government official has acknowledged. Moniz replied that the administration is looking at the methane data question.

“The current data suggest that is an incorrect statement,” Moniz said, “but we will be exploring it.”

Moniz also defended Obama from critics on the right who say the president is waging a war on coal. The secretary said U.S. EPA’s pursuit of new and existing power plants to cut carbon emissions via regulations “is the most significant step the president can take right now.”

“The charges of a war on coal, I argue, demonstrate misunderstanding or misstatement,” he said. “The way we are approaching this is we must reduce CO2 emissions.”

Moniz said “all of the above” means technology development to help coal remain part of the puzzle via carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. The administration, he added, has put $6 billion on the table to demonstrate that CCS technology can work and keep the coal industry alive in the process.

“This is not a war on coal,” Moniz said. “Quite the contrary, it is preparing the way for coal to potentially have a place in the low-carbon world.”

Moniz then dipped into yet another area of controversy. He defended the administration’s loan guarantee program through DOE and said it was a mistake to “reflexively” associate it with the failed solar company Solyndra.

Moniz said the program is home to $34.4 billion in projects, in all corners of the energy market, from wind to solar to the first new commercial nuclear reactor in a generation. He said the program deserves credit for helping Tesla Motors, for one, to get off the ground and start mass-producing high-end electric cars.

“It was risky, but the portfolio was supposed to take some risks,” he said. “Tesla is certainly looking today like a great success.”

Moniz noted that Tesla, whose stock price is presently riding a wave of bullish support on Wall Street, paid down its near $500 million DOE loan nine years earlier than scheduled. He said such speculation, with Solyndra and Tesla on either end of the spectrum, has always been the point of the loan program

“Not every investment is going to succeed,” he said, “and frankly, I think you’d worry about it if it did.”