News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Obama's Rumored Pick for Energy Secretary is Fracking and Nuclear Friendly

President Obama's declaration in his 2013 State Of The Union that he'd pursue an "all of the above" energy strategy is being underscored by his likely choice for Steven Chu's replacement as Secretary of the Department of Energy. And that rumored pick, Ernest Moniz, an MIT professor who directs that university's Energy Initiative (MITEI), is being described by some observers as too friendly to the natural gas and nuclear industries to promote renewable energy effectively.

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Under Moniz's direction, according to Peter Mantius at D.C. Bureau, MITEI received $25 million from each of its "founding members": BP, Shell, Saudi Aramco, and the Italian energy company ENI. In return, each company was granted a stake in determining the scope and direction of MITEI's research. Smaller contributors were also given some say into research priorities, but the founding members were able to place their own researchers in MITEI labs in exchange for their largesse.

MITEI is probably best known for a 2011 report it co-produced with the "Clean Skies foundation," "The Future of Natural Gas." As Mantius reminds us, the Clean Skies Foundation was launched by Chesapeake Energy, an early proponent of hydraulic fracturing -- fracking -- and the donor of $26 million in secret donations to the Sierra Club that seriously damaged that leading environmental group's reputation when revealed last year.

The influence of Chesapeake's indirect funding of the MITEI natural gas report is arguable, as is that of the additional funding from other energy firms. But the "Future of Natural Gas" as described in the MITEI report is an unquestionably rosy one, as long as companies engaging in fracking follow unspecified "best practices":

The environmental impacts of shale development are challenging but manageable. Shale development requires large-scale fracturing of the shale formation to induce economic production rates. There has been concern that these fractures can also penetrate shallow freshwater zones and contaminate them with fracturing fluid, but there is no evidence that this is occurring. There is, however, evidence of natural gas migration into freshwater zones in some areas, most likely as a result of substandard well completion practices by a few operators.

MITEI's too-cozy involvement with the natural gas industry isn't unique: in the last year Penn State, UT Austin, and the State University of New York at Buffalo have come under fire for similar entanglements. Mantius' piece at D.C. Bureau discusses this so-called "Frackademia" scandal in some detail.

As Mantius points out, Moniz' involvement in such ethically questionable relationships between business and academia is cause for concern, as his name rises to the top of the list of potential Energy Secretary nominees. Also relevant is Moniz's support for U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), and for nuclear energy: A nuclear physicist by training, Moniz has advocated for $36 billion in government loan guarantees to promote new nuclear power stations built with existing technology, as for example in this 2011 interview with Dan Rather:

Environmental groups are understandably concerned about Moniz's likely nomination. On Friday, Bill Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity expressed his group's reservations in a press release:

We're concerned that, as energy secretary, Ernest 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. We're also concerned that Moniz would be in a position to delay research into the dangers fracking poses to our air, water and climate."

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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He would be the head of the Energy Department, and clearly the author has no idea what this department actually does... very little of its mission involves energy production or regulation of energy production.

2011 US Dept of Energy Budget
Division - Funding (in billions)

Nuclear Security (weapons, nonproliferation, naval reactors) - $10.5
Environment Cleanup of DOE sites - $6.3
Science (basic and high energy physics) - $4.9
Energy (efficiency and renewable research)- $4.2
Other - $0.6
Management - $0.4

Total $27

So his views on fracking are of little importance, other than he's a realist. I've heard him lecture, and he clearly sees Natural Gas as both a far better alternative to coal, and as a bridge to better energy alternatives in the future. You can't snap you fingers and overnight (10 - 20 years) change the energy generation profile and infrastructure of the US... so while the change is happening, burning Natural Gas is better than burning coal and oil.


Actually, "the author" helped a group of other demonstrators shut down the L'Enfant Plaza DOE Building down back in October 1979, on the 50th anniversary of the 1929 Market Crash, precisely due to its work on nuclear weapons, so "the author" has for some time been relatively familiar with the DOE's diverse mission. However, the DOE is in fact the lead agency responsible for development of Federal renewable energy policy, which is what we report on here at ReWire, and so it's a relevant focus for an article on the probable nominee for the Secretary slot. In any case, Moniz is in fact getting criticism from green groups and like analysts, which is what this article reported on.

As for the notion that we can't "snap you fingers and overnight (10 - 20 years) change the energy generation profile and infrastructure of the US" -- I suggest you ratchet down the unnecessary hostility and read, well, pretty much the entirety of what we put online here at ReWire, in which we generally describe how people are doing just that.


I would respectfully direct the author and others to the annual assessment released by the DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Lab that looks at energy us in the US. There's a nice visual depiction of source vs end use. I offer it an a way to understand my "overnight" comment. Take for example nuclear power (I'm a fan), there are 109 operating nuclear power stations in the US. You would have to triple this number (or their output) to just replace the coal as the source of electrical generation - obviously this is not going to happen, ever. Point is, while we all want and know that renewable sources (wind, solar, etc) are the ultimate goal, the current infrastructure and customer destination limit these sources.

"Americans used less energy in 2011 than in the previous year due mainly to a shift to higher-efficiency energy technologies in the transportation and residential sectors. Meanwhile, less coal was used but more natural gas was consumed according to the most recent energy flow charts released by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Wind power saw the biggest jump from .92 quadrillion BTU, or quads, in 2010 up to 1.17 quads in 2011. (BTU or British Thermal Unit is a unit of measurement for energy and is equivalent to about 1.055 kilojoules).

"Wind energy jumped significantly because, as in previous years, many new wind farms came online," said A.J. Simon, an LLNL energy systems analyst who develops the flow charts using data provided by the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration. "This is the result of sustained investment in wind power."

Hydroelectricity also saw an increase going from 2.51 quads in 2010 up to 3.17 quads in 2011.

Hydroelectricity jumped significantly in 2011 because 2011 saw large amounts of precipitation in the Western U.S. Hydroelectric dams were able to produce at their maximum levels while keeping reservoirs full. Similar levels of hydroelectric production were seen in 1997, 1998 and 1999 due to wet years.

Overall, U.S. energy use in 2011 equaled 97.3 quads compared to the 98 quads used in 2010. Most of the energy was tied to coal, natural gas and petroleum.

From 2010 to 2011, use of coal fell dramatically, use of oil (petroleum) fell slightly and use of natural gas increased slightly from 24.65 quads in 2010 to 24.9 quads in 2011.

"Sustained low natural gas prices have prompted a shift from coal to gas in the electricity generating sector," Simon said. "Sustained high oil prices have likely driven the decline in oil use over the past 5 years as people choose to drive less and purchase automobiles that get more miles per gallon."

The majority of energy use in 2011 was used for electricity generation (39.2 quads), followed by transportation, industrial, commercial and residential consumption. However, energy use in the residential, commercial and transportation sectors decreased while industrial energy use increased if only slightly.

"With the advent of shale gas, it appears that natural gas prices in the United States may remain lower than their historical averages for many years into the future," Simon said. "This has prompted many gas users in the industrial and electricity generating sector to switch from coal or oil to natural gas when it is technically possible, but might not have been economical at higher gas prices.""