I've read a number of stories on President Obama's nomination of MIT physicist Ernest Moniz to be the next Secretary of Energy. This overview of his background from the Washington Post is as good a place as any to start. Although I haven't met Dr. Moniz, I've seen him on various panels and am familiar with some of his department's work, such as MIT's reports on the Future of Natural Gas, Future of Coal and Future of Nuclear Power. As many comments since his announcement have suggested, it would be hard to find a more ideal steward of an all-of-the-above energy strategy. At the same time, this choice also reflects many of the key challenges facing the Department of Energy at this moment, not least the preservation of its R&D activities and other capabilities in a post-sequestration environment. This is likely to be a different Department of Energy (DOE) than the one that Dr. Chu guided for the last four years.
If I thought it likely that the DOE would continue to pursue large-scale industrial policy, such as the expanded energy loan guarantee program and other renewable energy deployment-focused activities that originated in the 2009 stimulus bill, I would be a lot more concerned that the President has selected another scientist and academic administrator to lead the DOE, instead of someone who has actually run a large energy business. Lack of commercial experience was arguably a key factor in the DOE's decision to fund Solyndra even as its main business proposition was unraveling, along with promoting a premature and excessive expansion of US electric vehicle battery manufacturing capacity.
However, the federal budget sequester is now in place and Congress has little appetite for expensive new programs. Business acumen seem less critical for a department that must make do with less for the foreseeable future while remaining relevant in an administration focused on advancing renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. From the relatively little I know of Dr. Moniz, his prior experience in government--including a stint as an undersecretary of energy--and prominent role in a first-class research institution should equip him well for this task.
Dr. Moniz faces criticism from environmentalists for his views on nuclear power, natural gas and hydraulic fracturing ("fracking.") It's hard to imagine any nominee for this job who wouldn't spark some level of controversy, given the conflicting energy goals we've pursued over the years. I don't give much credence to the Post's inclusion of the views of Professor Howarth of Cornell on the Moniz nomination, considering that much of Dr. Howarth's widely-disseminated analysis of shale gas emissions has subsequently failed to withstand scrutiny. In any case I prefer the choice of a Secretary of Energy who has some appreciation of the importance of the energy sources that still supply roughly 90% of our energy needs, and possesses a clear understanding of the complexities of the long transition to cleaner sources, rather than one exclusively focused on the latter.