Energy Secretary Nominee Dodges Question On Gas Exports

A U.S. Senate committee held a confirmation hearing for Ernest Moniz on Tuesday, who has been nominated to be the U.S. Energy Secretary. Moniz says he will retire from MIT, where he's a professor of physics and energy systems. He would advocate for the Obama administration's "all of the above" energy strategy, which calls for continued fossil fuels development and supports nuclear energy, wind and solar.

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Today, the nominee for secretary of Energy told a congressional committee that he firmly believes the nation needs to switch gradually to energy sources that don't contribute to climate change. That idea rankles some members of Congress. Still, the nominee, MIT professor Ernest Moniz, got a warm welcome from the senators who will vote on his nomination. NPR's Richard Harris tells us more.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: The love fest for Ernest Moniz started early with comments from Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the committee.

SENATOR LISA MURKOWSKI: You may very well prove to be this rare nominee, I guess, that generates that bipartisan support. I would certainly hope so.

HARRIS: Moniz is a veteran of Washington, having served previously as an energy official in the Clinton administration. He was at ease on the witness stand. And committee chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon also made it clear that Moniz would get his vote, as he invited him to the hearing.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: Thank you very much, Doctor. And I know you've got family members here, and we would just invite you to introduce them.

ERNEST MONIZ: OK. I'll start with my wife of 39.83 years, Naomi.

(LAUGHTER)

WYDEN: I know you academics focus on numbers.

(LAUGHTER)

MONIZ: This might be on of the rare cases of both precision and accuracy.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Moniz also displayed his wide understanding of energy technology and policy. Top on many senators' minds was what to do about liquefied natural gas, LNG. If oil companies are allowed to export it, they stand to make handsome profits. But that would likely drive up the price of natural gas domestically. Some senators tried to get Moniz to say that would be a bad thing. But Wyoming Republican John Barrasso argued that exporting gas helps our allies by making them less reliant on natural gas from Russia.

SENATOR JOHN BARRASSO REPUBLICAN, WYOMING: Do you believe that LNG exports from the United States to these countries would strengthen our national security interests?

MONIZ: Thank you, Senator Barrasso. That's a very interesting question.

HARRIS: And one he chose to dodge, other than to say that the government needs to come to a decision that's in the public interest.

During the morning of back-and-forth questions, Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, had clearly done a bit of mathematics. He was poised to strike when his turn came.

SENATOR AL FRANKEN DEMOCRAT, MINNESOTA: You said that you've been married 39.83 years. May I remind you, you're under oath. Is your...

(LAUGHTER)

MINNESOTA: Is your anniversary June 10th?

MONIZ: June 9th. That's in the rounding error.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: The former comedian did follow up with a serious question, citing a report that finds that energy research and development is underfunded by about a factor of three.

MONIZ: I would agree. And I would add that I think there is a lot of evidence that we have a lot more capacity to do the kind of work that you're talking about.

HARRIS: The talent is there, but the money is not. Moniz acknowledged that the nation is in a time of tight budgets, so there's only so much he could do as energy secretary. He now awaits a formal confirmation vote in the Senate. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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