Past the bold headlines of front-page news are stories that often seem trivial or inconsequential, but are actually of incredible importance; you may have seen a fleeting trend-line in the news: “Obama Nominates Moniz of MIT to head DOE.” Ernest Moniz, a physicist, MIT professor, and specialist in energy-policy, was recently appointed to head The Department of Energy and is anything but a routine candidate for the office.
For the agency that has regulatory control over the U.S. energy industry (which is a multi-trillion dollar field of business), Ernest Moniz’s appointment signals a hardened bottom line of reaching energy security and efficiency standards. Considering how stringent emission, fuel efficiency, and energy consumption benchmarks have become as of late, it might seem like DOE has already tightened the
preverbal belt on America’s energy use. After all, the average car’s gas mileage is now the highest it has ever been; currently the average stands at 24mpg, and it is set to increase to 54.5mpg by 2025. Dependence on foreign oil has decreased by from Bush-era highs by 7% to reach record lows, homes have become more energy efficient, and money is being poured into advanced energy research under the Arpa-E program. With Moniz at its head, the DOE promises to further this trend.
However, despite his promises to carry the torch of the DOE’s efficiency-focused policy, Ernest Moniz has a hard-nosed, pragmatic philosophy on energy that has many environmentalists and proponents of renewable energy worried. Moniz has a stern commitment to efficiency and will consider any and all viable sources of energy; he has advocated for natural gas and nuclear power for years. While these energy sources are certainly “alternatives” to petroleum and coal, they do not compare to the truly clean, emissionless sources like solar, hydroelectric and wind power. Moniz favors, in his policy, what can be easily implemented into the complexity of the current energy infrastructure. To Moniz, nuclear energy is a tried and true, zero-carbon energy source that can be put into action with immediacy, and while natural gas is most certainly not a zero-emission fuel, it is much cleaner than sooty coal, which it would promise to replace.
Environmentalists, however, worry about the increased quantity of nuclear waste that comes with added nuclear facilities, as well as the environmental dangers that come with fracking (natural gas’s extraction method). Although fracking, a process which involves cracking layers of bedrock with highly pressurized liquids, has been shown to contaminate underground reservoirs and wells with spillover natural gas and hydraulic fluid, Moniz claims that joint regulation of natural gas extraction by both the DOE and EPA can help companies avoid such contamination and provide for the safe extraction conditions. He also asserts that nuclear waste should have a management plan “at least on the order of 100 years” to “preserve options.” Essentially, his nuclear plan involves creating long term dry storage facilities and operates on the premise that we might somehow be able to re-use the spent nuclear material with new technological developments in the future.
Moniz’ critics fear that his policies only “kick the can down the road” and leave our energy issues to pile onto the next generation. Moniz himself will agree that his solutions are not permanent; he had stated in an interview with Switch Project, “In the long term, natural gas would likely be phased out in favor of zero-carbon options,” adding, “For the next several decades, however, natural gas will play a crucial role in enabling very substantial reductions in carbon emissions.”
What this sobering view of energy will mean for now is more fracking, more nuclear power, and more restrictions on coal in the interim, while we wait for newer, cleaner technologies to come along. Moniz’s is not a perfect energy policy, but it seems to be capable of lessening our petro-coal dependence while better technologies develop. However, diverting recourses from truly clean energy sources like solar and wind can be risky; if natural gas and nuclear approach the ubiquity of coal and petroleum, then we might just have more energy “bad habits” to kick, but in an industry as uncertain as energy production, it is extremely difficult to tell what the future holds. All we can do for now is watch how Ernest Moniz’s plans pan out.