DOE Secretary Moniz explains the “all of the above” energy plan and defends natural gas fracking

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In his first major policy address since taking over at the Department of Energy, Dr. Ernest J. Moniz sought to explain the administration’s “all of the above” energy plan and answered critics who accuse Obama supporting natural gas development despite concerns that fracking contaminates air and water.

You can see Moniz’  hour-plus full talk Monday at Columbia University here, or read the synopsis of the highlights below.


The topic actually didn’t come up until the end of the address, when the moderator explained that about half of the question cards turned in by the audience dealt with hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, a hugely controversial topic in New York and elsewhere where citizens are worried about the effects of intensive fracking operations on community water supplies and local air quality. Residents living near intensively fracked areas have reported problems with well water as well as skin rashes and respiratory issues.

Asked what the role for natural gas should be in the new energy economy, Moniz was clear that it has its place.

“It is a fact that in these last years, the natural gas revolution as they say has been a  major contributor to reducing carbon emissions,” he said.

Moniz Energy Address Aug. 2013 small

About half of the progress so far toward reducing overall U.S. carbon emissions under the Obama Administration has been due to the substitution of natural gas for coal in power plants, he continued.

“In my previous life at MIT when we did a study on natural gas, if you asked the question up front — is natural gas a part of the problem or part of the solution for climate change? — we reached the conclusion that yes, that certainly in the near term and potentially for some years  out, this substitution of natural gas for coal combustion, without carbon capture [for coal], would be a major contributor to reducing carbon emissions.”

Down the road if the U.S. is really cracking down on carbon emissions that might change, he said, then “gas itself would have to have carbon capture or it would be too carbon intensive.”

Asked about fracking’s methane gas emissions, which are greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, Moniz noted that these could be captured and put to use, and that an Obama-decreed task force of multiple federal agencies would be looking at the problem of methane gas leakage from hydraulic fracturing.

The “War on Coal”  

The administration has had to walk a fine line on fossil fuels, on the one hand supporting natural gas for reducing carbon emissions by replacing coal (and also cracking down on pollution from coal-fired power plants) and on the other hand, arguing that it has not launched a “war on coal.”

Moniz stayed on the tight rope.

Directing the EPA to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants was Obama ‘s best open route to bring down the carbon emissions that are driving climate change, he said.

“It is the most significant step the president can take with executive action, absent legislative action, but the charges of it being a  ‘war on coal’ is a misunderstanding or a misstatement of what is being called the all-of-the-above approach to US energy.”

The All-of-the-Above Energy Plan

In addition to addressing criticism from the right that the administration has started a war on coal, Moniz addressed critics on the left who quibble that Obama’s oft-described “all of the above” energy plan is soft on fossil fuels.

“The idea is that ‘allof the above’ means we will invest in the technology, research and demonstration so that all of our energy sources can be enabled as market place competitors in a low carbon energy world.”

“That’s what we mean by all of the above”

But while fossil fuels are included in the “all of the above” vision, it’s a plan that still begins with the core goal of reducing carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels, he said.

Moniz also suggested that in a nation dependent on transportation, which is largely dependent upon oil, would be foolish not to challenge the fossil fuel industry to come up with its own lower carbon solutions.

U.S. policymakers, he said, must be “pragmatic” and “practical”.

On Climate Change

“I’m not here to debate what’s not debatable. The evidence is  overwhelming, the science is clear, certainly clear for the level that one  needs for policy making in terms of the real and urgent threat of climate change. . . .”

“Prudence demands strong commonsense near term policy actions to minimize the risks of global warming and that’s what the president’s  Climate Action plan does in the absence of legislative remedies.”

On Renewables

Moniz waxed hopeful, and sounded most passionate, discussing green energy technologies.

U.S. wind power, he noted, had tripled in capacity since 2008, accounting for 44 percent of new electricity capacity in 2012 and dropping in price to a “levelized” 6 cents per kilowatt.

Solar PV modules, he said, cost about 1 percent of what they did 30 years ago and utility-scale solar is creating a disruptive, but positive force on the grid.

LED lights have advanced with lightning speed and offer a lifetime savings of $100 for every incandescent 60 watt bulb they replace.

“The future,” Moniz said, “may not always be 10 years away.”

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