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The Moniz confirmation hearing — what he said

April 9th, 2013 | by K Kaufmann | Comments

Early online reports on Tuesday’s confirmation hearings on Secretary of Energy nominee Ernest Moniz focused on his well-known and long-stated support for natural gas development.

But from where I was sitting, the most important moment in the MIT professor’s relatively low-key questioning by members of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee came when Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado spoke about the impacts of climate change in his state and asked how a balanced energy portfolio could reduce carbon emissions.

As to climate change in general, Moniz said, “I certainly agree the scientific basis for warranting action is completely clear,” and the statement passed with no further comment by anyone on the committee, at least while I was listening to the hearing.

Does the lack of controversy raised by the remark signal that Republicans, at least on this committee, are not disputing the science of climate change and are open to discussing options for U.S. action on the issue?

Moniz then went on to talk about going to a low-carbon economy “that will include natural gas among traditional sources in this country being a bridge. But assuming we do go to a very low-carbon economy, even natural gas will require capping while we deploy renewable energy, nuclear and efficiency, plus hydro.”

I managed to listen in on the live stream for about an hour during which I focused mostly on what Moniz said on issues relevant to the Coachella Valley — renewable energy development, energy efficiency and innovation.

Overall, I’d say Moniz pretty much aced the hearing. It is clear President Obama nominated him because he does embody an all-of-the-above approach to energy and is equally comfortable talking about fossil fuels or renewables. When individual senators tried to push him on specific local or partisan issues, Moniz was not afraid to say he was not up on a specific issue, but would do his research and work with lawmakers on solutions. At the same time, he never backed down on his basic support for a strong role for renewables in the nation’s energy future and support for research and innovation.

One example – at one point, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah referred to a Government Accountability Office report finding significant overlap in wind energy incentive programs across different federal agencies — the Department of the Interior, Agriculture and Energy — and pointedly asked about whether it made sense to have multiple programs.

Moniz answered he was not aware of the report, but added, “I’m very supportive of providing the marketplace with low-carbon options.”

Several questions were asked about the DOE’s national research laboratories and their role in supporting innovation and technology transfer to the private sector — that is, getting federally developed technologies out to start-ups that work with green or tech incubators such as the Coachella Valley iHub.

Moniz said he wanted to involve lab directors in setting research priorities for the departments and also possibly develop regional or state-level initiatives to create a “better innovation eco-system.”

Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota asked about the low funding levels for clean energy research, about $5 billion, compared to other government funding, tens of billions, for defense and medical research and potential budget cuts in this area due to sequestration.

“This is a very serious issue,” Moniz said. “I would note if one does simple arithmetic as a guide . . . we are under investing by a factor of three.”

With sequestration, leveraging available funds will be needed, he said.

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii asked for Moniz’s views on the role of energy efficiency in U.S. energy policy.

“Energy efficiency demand side is enormously important if you look at a low-carbon future. It’s hard to see how that can happen withour efficiency gains,” he said. “This low-hanging fruit is quite ripe.”

Moniz called for additional research and more federal-state cooperation, possibly drawing on the Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” model — states being eligible for federal grants for some level of achievement in energy efficiency.

Udall also asked for Moniz’s views on public-private partnerships in developing new technologies in the energy sector.

“I’m an enormous fan of public-private partnerships,” he said (obviously, “enormous” is a frequently used adjective in the Moniz vocabulary). “I would be seeking all kinds of new ideas of moving that forward. We should think about regionally focused industry. The regional issues for solving energy problems are quite big.”

Barring some political bomb shell, Moniz’s confirmation by the full Senate seems likely.  Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has already announced his support.

More controversy can be expected on Thursday, when the Senate Committee on the Enviroment and Public Works takes up Obama’s nomination for the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy.

The hearing begins at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time, which means another early morning, 7:30 a.m. out here and will also be live-streamed from the committee’s website.

The archived stream of Moniz’s hearing is available on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee website.

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