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.
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."