On Monday, President Obama nominated MIT’s Ernest J. Moniz as the next secretary of energy. He will replace Steven Chu, who announced last month that he would resign. Only in the past decade have scientists occupied the position. If confirmed by the Senate, Moniz, a physicist, would continue that pattern.
“Ernie knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy while still taking care of our air, our water and our climate,” Obama said at the nomination ceremony.
Moniz, a physics professor, has been the director of the MIT Energy Initiative since its formation under President Hockfield in 2006. But Moniz also knows his way around Washington, having served as Undersecretary of Energy from 1997 to 2001 under President Clinton.
Observers have noted Moniz’s pragmatic approach when it comes to the interplay between energy, the economy, and the environment. Moniz has advocated a carbon tax, natural gas, and nuclear energy as the world transitions toward more sustainable energy practices.
“The world needs both more electricity and less pollution. The goals are not incompatible, but the solution will require better management of demand, smarter use of coal as well as renewable energy sources, and increased use of nuclear power,” Moniz wrote with professor John Deutch in an op-ed for the New York Times.
“Given the large amounts of natural gas available in the U.S. at moderate cost (enabled to a large degree by the shale gas resource), natural gas can indeed play an important role over the next couple of decades (together with demand management) in economically advancing a clean energy system,” Moniz testified before a Senate committee. “However, with increasingly stringent carbon dioxide emissions reductions, natural gas would eventually become too carbon intensive, which highlights the importance of a robust innovation program for zero-carbon options.”
An important technology for extracting shale gas is hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), which is controversial because of its potential to contaminate the air and ground water. A report from the Energy Initiative called “The Future of Natural Gas,” conducted under Moniz, acknowledged these difficulties but recommended natural gas as a “bridge” until better options are available, drawing criticism from environmental groups like the Food & Water Watch.
The Energy Initiative’s industry ties to major oil and gas companies have also drawn criticism from environmental groups. The “founding members” of the Energy Initiative, sponsors with research oversight privileges, include BP, Shell, Eni, and Saudi Aramco.
Work at the Energy Initiative, which includes scientific research, policy studies, education, and campus energy management programs, will continue while Moniz is head of the Department of Energy. “We don’t have an indication of who will take over as director of MITEI if Dr. Moniz is confirmed. But in the interim, the Deputy Director Robert Armstrong will take on much of his role,” wrote Victoria Ekstrom, a spokesperson for the Energy Initiative, in an email to The Tech.
When Moniz assumes his new role, he will join the other MIT affiliate in the Cabinet, acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank PhD ’83.