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Key Senate Panel Leaders Withhold Judgment on Moniz

Capitol Hill reaction to the nomination of MIT physicist Ernest Moniz as the next Energy secretary was muted Monday, with the chairman of the Senate panel that will consider the scientist’s confirmation taking a wait-and-see approach.

“I look forward to discussing with Ernest Moniz the many issues before the Energy Department that are so vital to the nation’s energy security,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “That includes: re-engaging Dr. Moniz over the problems with cleaning up nuclear waste at the Hanford Site, finding creative ways to promote new technologies and harness the ingenuity of America’s energy innovators, and examining the diverse opportunities to attack climate change and transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Much of the Energy Department’s mission is to oversee the nation’s legacy of nuclear weapons. Late last month, Energy Secretary Steven Chu alerted Wyden that six underground storage tanks were leaking radioactive waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on the Columbia River bordering Oregon and Washington. Wyden has said Hanford will be a key issue for Chu’s successor.

Moniz did get an enthusiastic endorsement from Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee. Markey opposes expansion of hydraulic fracturing and nuclear power — two things Moniz supports.

“I’ve known Gina [McCarthy, the nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency] and Ernie for years, and their intellectual toughness and creativity are exemplary,” Markey said.

”Our country has the opportunity and obligation to tackle climate change and create new clean-energy jobs, and I know these two Massachusetts leaders will continue the course President Obama has set to increase clean energy and decrease pollution,” Markey added. “I look forward to supporting their efforts on those fronts, and I welcome their nominations.”

Other lawmakers said they have an open mind, but would need to hear more from Moniz before making a decision.

“I look forward to hearing more from Dr. Moniz regarding his views on how he intends to make the [Energy Department] less politicized and myopic and ensure we are taking full advantage of the energy opportunities here in the U.S.,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., a booster of oil and gas development.

Likewise, Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she would withhold judgment until talking with Moniz, but her main concern is that the Energy Department and the EPA “take immediate steps to restore balance to our nation’s energy and environmental policies. That balance has been missing for the past four years but must play a more prominent role going forward if we are to bolster our struggling economy.”

In nominating Moniz, President Barack Obama indicated that the physicist could meet the concerns of those who want an “all of the -above” energy strategy and those who want to address climate change. “Most importantly, Ernie knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy, while still taking care of our air, our water and our climate,” the president said.

Moniz leads MIT’s Energy Initiative, serves on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and has served on corporate boards in the electric utility, natural-gas and oil industries. He is an advocate of nuclear power and served on an Obama-appointed panel to draw up recommendations for the long-term, safe disposal of radioactive waste. He served as an Energy Department undersecretary during the Clinton administration.

Moniz’s position supporting hydraulic fracturing has already drawn opposition from some environmental groups that oppose its expansion. But many mainstream environmental and energy groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, the Alliance to Save Energy and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions said Moniz’s experience and knowledge in all energy fields will help frame the debate over fracking and other energy issues.

“Dr. Moniz has repeatedly observed that just because the environmental challenges of shale gas are manageable — that does not mean that they are yet managed,” said Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp. “As there is work that remains to be done to ensure the safety of communities living around oil and gas development, and to address the air pollution issues that go beyond the local neighbors, his perspective will be important in the national conversation.”

Moniz has spoken so many times about so many energy topics that those looking to oppose his nomination will have plenty of fodder. In just one World Affairs Council appearance last year on energy, Moniz said he believed technologies such as solar power and batteries are the future for the electric sector, but those technologies are a decade away from being viable.

Until then, he said, natural gas can be a bridge fuel as long as there’s an end in sight. “I would argue it’s [natural gas] buying us time as long as it displaces coal. But buying time doesn’t matter if you don’t use the time,” he said.

Moniz also said nuclear power would have a place in the portfolio as long as the four new reactors being built in Georgia and South Carolina are finished on time and on budget. However, he’s not optimistic for the future of carbon capture and sequestration unless there’s a new, more cost-effective technology that becomes available.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized the position of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp on the Moniz nomination.

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