Today, the President nominated MIT nuclear physicist Dr. Ernest Moniz to succeed Dr. Steven Chu as Secretary of the Department of Energy. In the weeks leading up to his nomination, the mere speculation of Dr. Moniz’s nomination elicited harsh criticism and an aggressive letter writing campaign from anti-fracking organizations.
Opposition to Dr. Moniz’s nomination parallels environmentalists’ opposition to President Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy, which includes domestic oil and gas production, as well as nuclear power, clean coal, and renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydropower. Similarly, Moniz’s present work at MIT, and prior position as Undersecretary at DOE, suggest an all-of-the-above philosophy, including an important role for nuclear power in America’s energy. As a key member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and again at MIT, Dr. Moniz has shown strong support for funding renewable technologies and, in his 2011 testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he indicated that that the country’s newly discovered surplus of natural gas could act as a "bridge" to more low-carbon sources of energy.
Detractors of hydraulic fracturing are singularly focused on this last aspect of Dr. Moniz’s approach to domestic energy and hold it out as evidence that Dr. Moniz is in the pocket of the oil and gas industry. Indeed, anti-hydrocarbon elements of the environmental movement take great exception with MIT reports conducted under Dr. Moniz’s direction that found that natural gas provides an important bridge to a renewable energy future and that, while hydraulic fracturing, like any other energy technology, has risks, those risks are manageable. However, these findings are far from controversial. Any energy policy that contemplates the immediate and precipitous elimination of hydrocarbons is completely untethered to reality. Any suggestion that risks from hydraulic fracturing are completely unmanageable ignores a 60-year, million-well dataset that clearly says otherwise.
Detractors also point to MIT’s exception to a Cornell study that found that the lifecycle GHG emissions from shale gas exceeded those of coal, largely because of methane emissions during drilling and hydraulic fracturing. What the opponents fail to mention is that MIT was among a number of organizations that disputed Cornell’s findings. Studies by DOE, EPA, the European Union also dispute Cornell’s findings. Nor was MIT alone in academia’s dispute of the Cornell study. Researchers at Carnegie Melon, University of Maryland, and even at Cornell itself took exception with the study’s findings and methods.
The reason the Cornell study was so far outside the consensus of scientific thought was its inexplicable reliance on incomplete data and desperately flawed methodologies. For instance, the Cornell Study calculated the climate change impact of methane far above what even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates. The Cornell study findings were also premised on unsupported assumptions of massive methane leakage rates and a compound assumption that 100% of escaping methane is vented to the atmosphere. Those with industry familiarity know that most methane emissions are either controlled and captured or flared.
Calling attention to a poorly conducted study with results outside the boundaries of scientific consensus is more about being a friend of sound science – not the natural gas industry.
In reality, Dr. Moniz does not seem beholden to any one energy source. His nomination likely gives each stakeholder in the energy debate a reason to support him and a reason to oppose him. He is an “all of the above” nomination and a good choice for a president advocating an “all of the above” approach to energy policy.