Ernest Moniz: Where would he take Energy Department?

If confirmed as energy secretary, Ernest Moniz would take over the department during a time of fiscal austerity and controversy over failed investments in clean-energy companies. Mr. Moniz's confirmation hearing Tuesday hinted at a renewed focus on the agency's research and development roots.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Ernest Moniz testifies before the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee on his nomination to be energy secretary in Washington. Mr. Moniz supports President Obama's 'all-of-the-above' energy policy as a means toward a low-carbon economy.

Senators from across the political spectrum praised Ernest Moniz during his confirmation hearing Tuesday, all but indicating that the former undersecretary of the Department of Energy will soon claim the agency's top post.

So what will change at the DOE? Probably not much in terms of broad objectives. Mr. Moniz supports President Obama's "all-of-the-above" energy policy as a means toward a low-carbon economy.

But strategy is another question. During his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Moniz hinted that in contrast to the controversial direct investments in clean-energy companies under the previous energy secretary, he would refocus the department on its research and development roots.

"Our job is to push technology innovation to get the cost of low-carbon technologies as low as possible," Moniz said. It was a sentiment he echoed at various points throughout the hearing, saying research and development is "first and foremost" in the department's push to lower the cost of clean energy. 

In the meantime, Moniz says natural gas will function as a "bridge fuel" – a view that has drawn the ire of environmentalists concerned with the impact of hydraulic fracturing and the continued reliance on fossil fuels.

"Even with the best environmental controls, [natural gas] still has short-term and long-term impacts," said Deb Nardone, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Natural Gas Campaign. "It’s not a bridge; it’s a gangplank." 

Still, carbon dioxide emissions from energy consumption in the United States during 2012 fell to its lowest level since 1994, according to the Energy Information Administration. Moniz and others say that's largely the result of a shift away from coal and toward cleaner-burning natural gas.

And natural gas is cheap and abundant – so much so that, if confirmed, Moniz will weigh in on whether to export liquefied natural gas. It's a divisive issue that will require evaluating varying perspectives from a range of industries.

He'll have to do it all under a new era of fiscal austerity. Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu had the benefit of billions of dollars in stimulus funding to run his department and spur innovation. The next energy secretary will have the sequester to grapple with and the likelihood of additional cuts.

"You are not signing up for the easiest job here," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska told Moniz during the hearing. "Thirty-five years after the Department of Energy was created, we’re still in search of broad, clear, and consistent policy in this arena."

Energy: The next secretary of Energy will have to carry out President Obama's 'all-of-the-above' approach to energy policy in an era of tight budgets.

Environment: Ernest Moniz's support for natural gas and coal means a continued reliance on carbon-emitting energy sources, at least in the near term.

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