Ernest Moniz, a former MIT physicist, is the new secretary of energy. The Senate voted to confirm Moniz this afternoon by a vote of 97 to 0.
Moniz now takes over for Steven Chu, who left the Department of Energy in April after a tumultuous tenure in office. Faced with the sequester and a possible continuing resolution that would limit the department's budget, Moniz will also need to make hard decisions about what programs to fund.
As a moderate progressive on energy issues, Moniz had strong bipartisan support -- unlike many of President Obama's other nominees. However, some environmental groups publicly worried about Moniz because of his support for an "all-of-the-above" strategy to energy production, particularly his promotion of natural gas while at MIT.
“Dr. Moniz will make important decisions that will shape America’s energy and climate landscape for decades to come, including the agency’s response to 24 proposed liquefied natural gas terminals that could export up to 45 percent of the nation’s total natural gas production. We urge Secretary Moniz to take a timeout on exports to complete a thorough economic and environmental assessment," said Deb Nardone, the director of Sierra Club's Beyond Natural Gas campaign in a statement today.
Moniz has also been a strong supporter of renewable energy and the need to address climate change. In a statement, Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, praised his approach toward energy efficiency policy.
“We are excited to have Dr. Moniz at the helm of the Department of Energy. We know he will 'double down' on all of the important efforts that the president and Dr. Chu have underway to drive energy efficiency as well as bring new ideas and innovation to drive us toward the Alliance’s Energy 2030 goal of doubling energy efficiency by 2030," said Callahan.
Considering much of the partisan backlash against promotion of clean energy at the DOE, some may be less enthusiastic about the prospect of Moniz doubling down on Chu's previous efforts. But none of those tensions were displayed today, when the Senate unanimously approved him.
For more background, read our earlier story on Moniz's nomination below.
President Obama has found his new Energy Secretary. This morning, Obama nominated Ernest Moniz, an MIT nuclear physicist, to head the Department of Energy.
Moniz steps in to replace Steven Chu, another physicist who led the DOE during a boom time for government clean energy investments. Moniz will take the reins at the department during another transition -- a shift to austerity and tighter budgets. He could also take over at the DOE just as the sequestration hits federal agencies.
Some in the cleantech industry were hoping for a business leader to take over at the department. But Obama decided on someone who already understands the ins and outs of how the organization works.
"There were a lot of people hoping to see a businessperson over an academic," said Rob Day, a partner with Black Coral Capital. "But they also have to realize that the DOE is much bigger than the Office of Renewable Energy. An Energy Secretary needs to cross bridges and understand politics."
Moniz has extensive experience in government. From 1997 to 2001, he was the Under Secretary of Energy at the DOE. Before that, Moniz served for two years at the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the office of the president. And he's also a member of President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
With the DOE going through major changes now that stimulus programs have run their course, Moniz will need to figure out how to direct limited funds to clean energy programs that are still a priority for the Obama administration.
"Chu was running things under a time of growing budgets. We're now entering a time of shrinking budgets. Moniz has a lot of government experience inside the executive branch to manage that," said Joe Romm, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. (Full disclosure: Joe Romm was my boss and editor when I worked at Climate Progress, which was published by the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
Romm, also a physicist and MIT alum, was a student of Moniz's in 1981. They also worked together when Romm was acting assistant secretary at the Department of Energy in the 1990s under the Clinton administration. He also believes that Moniz was a better choice than a businessperson would have been.
"Being a businessperson is overrated in a cabinet job. Running the department is a real challenge. You have to manage physics labs, weapons labs, the nuclear portfolio, conventional energy, and renewable energy programs. And there are a lot of people you have to answer to: Congress, the public, the media, and a president who can tell you what to do. You're not as much of an executive."
Moniz is seen as a safe pick. But he's also taking a lot of heat from environmental groups that have slammed him because of his support of natural gas.
"At a time when the last thing we should be doing is undermining our progress against climate change, Moniz is the wrong choice to head one of the most important agencies in the fight for a sustainable energy future," wrote Elijah Zarlin, campaign manager for the progressive activism group CREDO Action, in a petition email to stop Moniz's nomination.
However, Moniz has made it clear that he believes gas is only a medium-term fix for addressing climate change: "Gas has to be a bridge to somewhere. And that somewhere is the carbon-free options. So we need to work hard on having a bridge to somewhere and to having that span be as short as possible," he said at a 2012 Bloomberg conference.
Environmentalists also criticize Moniz's role as the director of MIT's Energy Initiative, an interdisciplinary research program on renewables, efficiency, and fossil fuels. Because the initiative has taken money from oil and gas companies for research, environmental groups worry that Moniz is too close to the fossil fuel industry.
Others in the business world are worried about another academic leading the DOE. Writing on this site recently, solar expert Jigar Shah said he thinks Moniz will put too much emphasis on R&D and not enough on critical tools for deployment.
"I know some have concerns," said Rob Day. "But he's been working with them on new energy technologies to reduce carbon intensity and address climate change. He's proven his understanding of cutting-edge technologies, renewables and efficiency. I think the ability to work with such a range of players is an asset going into the department."
Joe Romm, one of the strongest voices on natural gas within the climate advocacy community, said he didn't fully agree with the environmental groups on their assessment.
"Sure, he's not an opponent of fracking, but I saw no evidence that Steven Chu was opposed to fracking either," said Romm. "An energy secretary doesn't have the freedom to just rein in fracking -- it really comes from the EPA more than any place. Plus, he understands global warming and the value of clean energy technologies. Anyone who understands that is a good choice."
Moniz must be confirmed by the Senate before he can take over at the Energy Department.