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Moniz: Shale Gas Boom a Low-Carbon Solution—for Now

Likely DOE nominee Ernest Moniz has already drawn fire from some environmentalists for being pro-industry. But his speeches reveal a more nuanced position.

Feb 21, 2013
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Moniz didn't elaborate on how to standardize regulations and oversight, but his comment touched on a controversial subject. The federal government has little control over oil and gas drilling because the industry is regulated by a patchwork of state laws. The Department of the Interior is finalizing fracking regulations for wells drilled on public lands, but the industry says the rules are redundant and wants regulation left to the states. Environmental groups say the proposed rules are too weak to be effective.

At the hearing, Moniz indicated that the MIT study had strengthened his support for gas drilling.

"Prior to carrying out our analysis, we had an open mind as to whether natural gas would indeed be a 'bridge' to a low-carbon future," he told the committee. "In broad terms, we find that, given the large amounts of natural gas available in the U.S. at moderate cost...natural gas can indeed play an important role over the next couple of decades (together with demand management) in economically advancing a clean energy system."

At the same time, however, the report projected that natural gas will "eventually become too carbon intensive" and should be phased out around 2050.

In order to ensure that the bridge has a "suitable landing point," Moniz said, "we must continue to invest in research in carbon-free sources—renewables, nuclear and CCS [carbon capture and storage] for both coal and natural gas."

More Money Needed for Renewable Energy R&D

Moniz has consistently supported renewable energy. As a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, he helped write a 2010 report that recommended a federal investment of $16 billion per year for clean energy innovation—about triple the 2010 investment. Some of that money could come from the private sector, the report said. For example, "we use about 200 billion gallons of transportation fuel annually, so a two cents per gallon charge would...generate about $4 billion per year." It said the same amount of money could be raised by charging a fee for the electricity used nationwide—a suggestion Moniz reiterated at the Texas conference.

Moniz also supported energy research and development in a letter he and Robert Armstrong, a chemical engineer and deputy director of the Energy Initiative, wrote to the MIT community in November. Federal support "for energy research is threatened by substantial cuts in funding and changing priorities," they wrote. "In this environment, even the evident benefits of plentiful, low-carbon natural gas create unease that the drive for zero-carbon options may stall."

In the letter, Moniz and Armstrong said there are "alarming indicators" that climate change impacts "are accelerating faster than expected"—but despite the warning signs, there has been "very little collective action" on a national or international scale to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Moniz and Armstrong then thanked the Initiative's funders, including "inaugural Founding and Sustaining Members, BP and Chevron," which recently renewed their funding commitments to the research program.

"Our program was designed with these partnerships as the core element of MITEI," they wrote, "and we remain convinced that this is the pathway to maximum impact for advancing MIT's research and educational mission, for meeting the companies' science, technology, and human-capacity strategic objectives, and for influencing the energy future."

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