Energy Secretary Moniz: 'There's no war on coal'

The Department of Energy aims to push down costs for all low-carbon energy technologies, not prioritize one fuel over another, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Thursday. The coal industry complains that the Obama administration is anti-coal.

Michael Bonfigli/TCSM
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz speaks at a Monitor Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Aug. 1.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz sought Thursday to reaffirm his department’s commitment to coal as part of America’s future energy mix, countering accusations that the Obama administration is waging a “war” against the fossil fuel out of environmental concerns.

“There's no war on coal,” Secretary Moniz said at a Monitor-hosted breakfast in Washington. “We start by saying, ‘We must control CO2 [carbon-dioxide] emissions.’ Then, after many years of ‘talking the talk’ ... the issue is ‘walking the talk’ in terms of developing technologies.”

Moniz stressed that the administration has done exactly that, by putting $6 billion into projects aimed at capturing carbon-dioxide emissions and sequestering them underground or using them for enhanced oil recovery. In early July, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced solicitations for $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for these and other advanced fossil-fuel technologies.

The goal of these programs, Moniz said, is to enact the Obama administration’s oft-cited “all-of-the-above” approach to energy policy, which the Energy secretary defined as “pursu[ing] the innovations and the transformations that give all of our energy resources the potential to be marketplace competitors in a low-carbon world.”

The job of the DOE, he added, is to push down costs for all low-carbon technologies, not prioritize one fuel over the other. In 2011, coal made up 34 percent of the energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions in the US, according to the US Energy Information Administration. 

Many in the coal industry, though, say the administration’s policies have battered an industry that provides roughly 40 percent of the nation’s electricity. In June, President Obama delivered a speech on climate change in which he urged that carbon-emissions standards be established for both new and existing power plants – a charge that has further rankled Republicans and coal-state Democrats.

But Moniz was bullish on the future of coal and other fossil fuels in his remarks Thursday. He reiterated his view that cleaner-burning natural gas can serve as a “bridge fuel,” towing a low-carbon line until renewables can be deployed at a larger scale.

The secretary acknowledged the environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling – two innovations that have unleashed a boom in domestic natural-gas production – but said the threats of methane emissions and local contamination are “manageable.”

“We know what to do about completing a well, but ‘manageable’ still has a requirement of being managed and being managed all the time,” Moniz said. “That’s where regulation can come in, and enforcement, [including] self-enforcement.”

Increased domestic natural-gas production has created a glut of natural gas in the US, with many in the industry calling on the Energy Department to issue more permits to export the fuel. The DOE approved the country’s second export terminal in May after a two-year pause.

When pressed on whether the department will issue more of these permits, Moniz said only that it is “very actively looking at the next application in the queue.” Moniz, who took office in late May, said he needed more time to review the issue.

“These are important decisions,” he said, “and I just really felt I had to know a lot more than I knew before I was confirmed and could have access to a lot of the nonpublic data.”

Moniz was similarly mum on Keystone XL, a proposed pipeline that would carry crude oil from Alberta, Canada, across the US to Gulf of Mexico refineries. That project is under review by the State Department.

“The responsibility rests with Secretary [of State John] Kerry to do the analysis and to make a recommendation on that,” Moniz said. “If we are asked to comment, it will be purely on some technical issues as opposed to the decisionmaking process.... Any comments we make will certainly be data-driven.”    

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