Moniz nomination has turned up no big-time Senate critics — yet

Source: Nick Juliano and John McArdle, E&E reporters • Posted: Tuesday, March 5, 2013

It looks like smooth sailing ahead for Ernest Moniz.

President Obama’s pick to lead the Department of Energy has attracted some grumbling from environmentalists over his previous support for natural gas, nuclear energy and clean coal — but nothing that rises to a level that could derail his confirmation.

Senate Republicans say they are withholding judgment until after his confirmation hearings, but GOP aides and lobbyists say there are no immediate red flags that would result in his nomination being held up or filibustered.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who leads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that Moniz’s nomination will have to pass through, said last night that he intends to begin the confirmation process “as soon as possible.”

Wyden said he congratulated Moniz in a phone call yesterday and told him he was looking forward to talking to him about a host of energy issues.

“I invited him to come up and start the visits as soon as he can, and I’m certainly going to make my time available to him right away,” Wyden said.

Moniz, 69, was formally nominated yesterday to succeed Steven Chu as Energy secretary (Greenwire, March 4). A nuclear physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Moniz shares Chu’s academic pedigree but would enter the job with a much better understanding of how Washington, D.C., works after stints at DOE and the White House during the Clinton administration.

“Ernie has never resented the political process and its influence on science,” said Elgie Holstein, a senior director at the Environmental Defense Fund who worked with Moniz during the Clinton administration. “Instead, he has taken political challenges as opportunities to make the case.”

EDF was among the environmental organizations most enthusiastic about Moniz’s nomination — an unsurprising development given its more moderate views on issues such as natural gas hydraulic fracturing than others in the environmental movement

Groups critical of fracking, such as the Sierra Club, Environment America and the Center for Biological Diversity, were more skeptical of Moniz, who oversaw reports touting the benefits of natural gas during his time at MIT (Greenwire, Feb. 22). At the same time, environmentalists welcomed Moniz’s recognition of climate change as a pressing threat deserving an aggressive response from the government.

“We’re looking for a nominee who won’t shy away from the climate fight but will embrace it,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, during an interview yesterday. “Right now, most of the Republican Party is not acknowledging that climate change exists or that it’s human-caused, so we shouldn’t pretend that this isn’t going to be a bare-knuckled barroom brawl for the next several years.”

Despite the concerns over nuclear and natural gas support, Brune said the Sierra Club would not lobby senators to block Moniz’s nomination.

“We do want to see policy concessions, but we’re not planning on taking an obstructionist route,” he said.

Bill Snape, CBD’s senior counsel, also predicted that environmentalists’ concerns would not be enough to sink Moniz.

“I do not see, at this point, anyway, a filibuster or a hold for those reasons,” Snape said in an interview. “The president is the leader of his party, and the president has clearly stated that he wants this person. And the president has also stated that he wants natural gas.”

Some Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, including Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, said yesterday that they are anxious to learn more about Moniz through the confirmation process.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), also a member of the Energy panel, said yesterday he had the opportunity to meet Moniz last year at his physics lab at MIT and was impressed.

“I’m encouraged by his thorough understanding and acumen of renewable energy development and research of low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuel,” said Heinrich, who is well-regarded in environmental circles.

No ‘red flags’ for GOP so far

Several Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, including freshman Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Tim Scott of South Carolina, also said last night that they have just begun looking at Moniz and are still learning about him.

Industry lobbyists and Republican aides said yesterday they think Moniz’s views toward oil and coal will likely be of interest, but several sources said there no immediate indications that he would face obstruction from Senate Republicans (Greenwire, March 4).

“From my perspective, his resume doesn’t pose any particular red flags that I’ve seen thus far,” said Salo Zelermyer, a former senior counsel at DOE during the George W. Bush administration who now lobbies in Washington for the firm Bracewell & Giuliani. “Quite the opposite, it looks quite encouraging for an industry that’s going through major happenings currently, and I think it’s helpful that somebody has gone through the gas revolution.”

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who four years ago placed a hold on EPA administrator nominee Gina McCarthy’s bid to head the air office, said yesterday he had no initial concerns about Moniz’s record but acknowledged that he had work to do ahead of the yet-to-be-announced confirmation hearings.

“I’m going to have to do more research to know that, but from my initial opinion, from what I’ve been reading,” he seems acceptable, Barrasso said in a brief interview yesterday.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), another member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he looked forward to hearing Moniz’s views on issues including energy affordability, research and development, nuclear waste and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Nuclear waste looks likely to be a point of concern for several senators — and Moniz’s tenure last year on an Obama-appointed commission that studied the issue will be scrutinized.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who supported the Obama administration’s decision to abandon plans to dispose of waste at Yucca Mountain, said in a statement yesterday that he was “confident” that Moniz would continue efforts to identify “a safe, consent-based approach to managing our nation’s nuclear waste that does not involve dumping it in Nevada.”

Reid’s home-state counterpart, Sen. Dean Heller (R), who sits on the Energy Committee, also raised the abandoned nuclear waste site as a concern.

“I’m particularly interested in his perspective on alternate solutions to dumping the nation’s nuclear waste in Nevada,” Heller said in a statement. “Yucca Mountain is a threat to public safety; no amount of reassurance from the federal government will convince me or the residents of Nevada otherwise. Given Mr. Moniz’s position on the Blue Ribbon Commission, I hope he agrees with me that Yucca Mountain should remain a closed issue.”

Wyden yesterday pointed to problems at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, where six waste tanks are leaking, as among the issues he wants to discuss during Moniz’s confirmation hearings.

The senator said in an interview that he also wants to talk with Moniz about natural gas development and various issues relating to renewables, “particularly the ones that have gotten short shrift, like geothermal and hydropower and biomass.”

Wyden said he told Moniz in their conversation yesterday that the nominee is in for a whirlwind next few weeks.

“I said congratulations and I was looking forward to talking to him, and I said, ‘Dr. Moniz, you’re going to be a busy fellow; you’re not going to be sitting around with your feet up reading papers,’” Wyden said.