MIT

Ernest Moniz

Obama Taps Familiar Face for Energy Secretary

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

He's back. Physicist Ernest Moniz, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor with extensive Washington experience, is President Barack Obama's choice to be the next secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE).

Moniz served as DOE's undersecretary and a top White House science aide under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. If confirmed by the Senate, he would succeed Steven Chu, another academic physicist, who is leaving later this month for a faculty position at Stanford University.

"[T]he good news is that Ernie already knows his way around the Department of Energy," Obama said during this morning's announcement at the White House. "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."

Moniz was considered a long shot among Washington watchers just a few months ago behind several nonscientists with larger political footprints. And despite being targeted by opponents of nuclear power and fracking, Moniz is drawing generally good reviews from mainstream science and environmental groups. The agency's mission includes oversight of the nation's nuclear weapons complex, running facilities for basic researchers, and setting energy efficiency standards.

"Ernie's a good choice—he has a very broad knowledge of DOE's portfolio and he's also a person who understands politics," says physicist Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. "Even before he came to Washington he was a pretty savvy guy politically, and certainly the years he's spent in Washington have honed those skills. My guess is that he will navigate the treacherous congressional and political waters very well."

"As a theoretical physicist, … Dr. Moniz will help ensure that the nation's energy decisions are based on sound science," said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement. "He has shown that he understands the complexities of the nation's energy challenges."

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that will hold Moniz's confirmation hearings, said in a statement that he's looking forward to discussing "the many issues" in play. One topic is longstanding "problems with cleaning up nuclear waste at the Hanford Site," a former part of the atom bomb complex in Washington state where liquid wastes are leaking from aging storage tanks.

Moniz, who is 69, would become the third scientist in a row to head DOE if confirmed. Before Chu, Samuel Bodman, who taught chemical engineering at MIT before going into the financial world, filled the post for President George W. Bush. Obama's choice of a scientist suggests "somebody is finally realizing that almost every part of DOE is driven by science," Lubell says. "It has so many programs that are knitted together by a science needle."

Moniz has been on the MIT faculty since 1973, at times heading its Department of Physics and the Bates Linear Accelerator Center, a DOE-funded research facility. Since the mid-2000s, he has led the MIT Energy Initiative, which has produced a number of high-profile reports on nuclear power, climate change, and energy policy.

Moniz came to Washington in 1995 to become an associate director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. He returned to MIT in 1997, then was appointed as DOE's second-in-command in 1997 and served until the end of Clinton's term in January 2001. Under Obama, Moniz became a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and served on the government's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, which issued a major report last year on how the nation might handle commercial nuclear waste and develop new reactors.

Moniz will bring a notably different style to the DOE job than Chu, say those who know both men. The seemingly reserved and occasionally prickly Chu sometimes had trouble building rapport with members of Congress; under Clinton, Moniz was known for a breezy, jovial style that mostly played well with politicians and staff. Chu prided himself with being a hands-on manager, whereas Moniz "is very much willing to delegate," says Lubell, who has known Moniz for 35 years.

Those skills could come in handy, as Moniz will inherit a department with seemingly intractable management problems and a budget outlook that is, at best, gloomy. For example, DOE's nuclear weapons programs—which are overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which accounts for more than one-half of the department's budget—have been under increasing scrutiny from Congress. One major concern has been repeated warnings from advisory panels that NNSA and DOE have developed a dysfunctional management relationship that has contributed to lengthy delays in programs aimed at assuring the reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, security problems at weapons facilities, and safety issues.

DOE's $5 billion Office of Science, meanwhile, is facing difficult choices about how to allocate a budget that is expected to remain essentially flat—or even shrink—over the next few years. Fusion and particle physics researchers are among the basic science communities facing the loss of current facilities and uncertainty about the prospects for new ones. Other researchers are waiting to see how Moniz will handle more applied research programs emphasized by Chu, such as those aimed at developing commercial-scale solar, wind, and biofuel technologies.

Moniz is also sure to face questions about the fate of Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which was supposed to become the nation's disposal site for commercial nuclear waste. The Obama administration pulled the plug on that plan after decades of controversy, and Moniz served on the commission that proposed a number of alternative approaches.

Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-trade group, would like to see Moniz restart the process of licensing Yucca Mountain. Moniz "has made it clear that he recognizes nuclear energy's important role in reducing greenhouse gases as part of a balanced, low-carbon electricity generation portfolio," Fertel said in a statement.

Posted in Policy, People & Events