White House Energy Pick Gets Mixed Reviews

President Barack Obama says his nominees for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head and U.S. Energy Secretary will focus on combating climate change and investing in American energy sources. One beneficiary of this mandate is natural gas, according to Bloomberg News.

Ernest Moniz, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist was tapped to be the U.S. Energy secretary and Gina McCarthy, a longtime environmental regulator, will likely run the EPA.

Both are on record as supporting natural gas production through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The boon in natural gas production has lowered it price, lessened reliance on coal-powered plants, and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions.  More rules targeting coal emissions are expected too – making the fracking industry poised for further growth.

Moniz combines management experience with detailed knowledge about energy technologies, according to John Deutch, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and fellow MIT professor.

Currently Moniz directs MIT’s Energy Initiative, which is supported by energy companies such as BP Plc (BP/), Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA) and Chevron Corp. (CVX). The Initiative researches biofuel technologies and nuclear fission and building design, one reason why Moniz is expected to continue the department’s current push for both clean-energy research and further regulations on fracking.

Moniz has called natural gas a “bridge fuel” – a way of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions while cleaner and more renewable sources of energy are developed.  As a bridge, cheap available natural gas will eventually push coal aside as a source for U.S. electricity, reports The Washington Post. Burning natural gas for electricity emits about half the carbon dioxide that burning coal does. That gives scientists more time to develop viable low or no emission alternatives.

The MIT physicist also backs expanded overseas sales of U.S. liquefied natural gas, for which companies such as Sempra Energy of San Diego and Dominion Resources in Richmond, Virginia, currently seek export licenses.

Moniz has voiced support for nuclear power plants, even when measured against the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima after an earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan in 2011, according to reporting in the Washington Post.

“It would be a mistake…to let Fukushima cause governments to abandon nuclear power and its benefits,” Moniz wrote in Foreign Affairs that same year, saying that it provides a workable clean solution to minimizing the accumulation of greenhouse gases.

These positions have some environmental groups worried. “We’re concerned that… Moniz may take a politically expedient view of harmful fracking and divert resources from solar, geothermal and other renewable energy sources vital to avoiding climate disaster…and delay research into the dangers fracking poses to our air, water and climate,” said Bill Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity, according to the Huffington Post.

Progressive advocacy group ThinkProgress argues that since natural gas is mainly methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas emitted by burning fossil fuels like natural gas – although with a shorter “shelf-life” than Co2.

The Sierra Club also issues a statement cautioning 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.”

Other environmental advocates are less concerned. “Ernie is really a big-picture guy,” Rosina Bierbaum, a President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) member and an environmental-policy expert at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The Natural Resource Defense Council also welcomed the nomination to replace Steven Chu, who plans to return to Stanford, as “good news.”

Yet, the division over Moniz may well be moot: the new DOE chief will likely have far fewer economic resources than the outgoing agency head, Steven Chu, enjoyed. Chu had tens of billions of dollars in grants and loan guarantees to reward energy technology firms with, under the economic recovery act. Moniz won’t – so unless that changes, the secretary’s job may come down to one of advocacy.

McCarthy worked for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as an environmental adviser, and then as head of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. She currently leads the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, which oversaw broad regulations aimed at cutting pollution from new coal-fired power plants and automobiles during the President’s first term.

Coal mining companies and coal-dependent utilities express hope that the EPA will change course with McCarthy’s confirmation. However, the EPA’s next set of rules will probably target existing plants, putting further pressure on coal plants – and further promote natural gas and fracking operations.

Clean Air Act rules have been key drivers for increased natural gas demand, according to John Hanger, the former top environmental official in Pennsylvania. Tougher regulations on coal plants would only help grow demand for natural gas – and fracking.

While the two nominees will likely face tough questions from Congressional lawmakers, neither face serious roadblocks – and the President has threatened to use more Execuitve Orders to get his way if the duo are not confirmed according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

For instance, even though McCarthy has a reputation for giving the industry a fair hearing, the Journal reports that Republicans have expressed concerns about her ability to balance industry and consumer needs with environmental concerns.  Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, the top Republican on the committee that will hold hearings on her nomination, said the EPA needs “a leader who will stop ignoring congressional information requests, hiding emails and more from the public, and relying on flawed science” – practices the current EPA has been accused of.

To read the original Bloomberg article cited in this story, click here

To read the original Washington Post article cited in this story, click here

To read the original Wall Street Journal article cited in this story, click here

To read the original Huffington Post article cited in this story, click here



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