WASHINGTON - President Obama says his picks to guide energy and environmental policy in his second term will lead the charge against global warming, a fight that may have one immediate beneficiary: natural gas.
Obama picked MIT scientist Ernest Moniz for Energy secretary and longtime environmental regulator Gina McCarthy to head the EPA.
"They're going to be making sure that we're investing in American energy, that we're doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change," Obama said at a White House ceremony on Monday.
In their current jobs, both have supported natural gas, the production of which by companies such as Exxon Mobil and Chesapeake Energy has boomed with the adoption of a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Cheap gas has lessened the nation's reliance on coal-fired power plants, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. With more rules targeting coal's emissions in the offing, natural gas is poised for growth, and that's proved divisive among environmentalists.
"One of the solutions to dealing with climate is supporting natural gas," Frank Maisano, an energy-industry lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP in Washington, said in an interview. "This administration, while a supporter of natural gas, has sometimes been nervous about that support" because of fracking critics in the environmental community, he said.
Moniz, 68, is a physics and engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He served as Energy Department undersecretary from 1997 to 2001 after an earlier stint as science adviser to President Bill Clinton.
Because he combines management experience with detailed knowledge about energy technologies, Moniz is the "best possible individual Barack Obama could have chosen" for the job, John Deutch, the former CIA director and fellow MIT professor, said in an interview. "He has a high reputation with industry and environmentalists."
Deutch said that Moniz is likely to continue current Energy Secretary Steven Chu's historic push for clean-energy research and will also be a stronger policy voice about climate change within the administration.
Moniz directs MIT's Energy Initiative, which is supported by energy companies such as BP Plc, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron and works on research into technologies such as biofuels, nuclear fission and building design. He has promoted natural gas as a bridge fuel - a way to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions until cleaner sources of energy are developed.
"In the very long run, very tight carbon constraints will likely phase out natural gas power generation in favor of zero-carbon or extremely low-carbon energy sources," Moniz said while releasing an MIT report in 2010 about natural gas. "For the next several decades, however, natural gas will play a crucial role in enabling very substantial reductions in carbon emissions."
Moniz has backed expanded overseas sales of U.S. liquefied natural gas, something backed by companies such as Sempra Energy of San Diego and Dominion Resources of Richmond, Va., that are seeking export licenses. LNG is a commercial enterprise that the Energy Department regulates. A report he helped direct concluded, "the U.S. should not erect barriers to natural gas imports or exports."
Those positions endeared him to industry while drawing criticisms from groups fighting fracking, a drilling process in which millions of gallons of water are mixed with sand and chemicals to break apart underground rock formations and free trapped gas.
"Moniz understands the vital importance of natural gas in our economy and our energy outlook," Dave McCurdy, president of the American Gas Association in Washington, said in an interview. "The Obama administration clearly supports greater use of natural gas, and so he'll be a good fit."
Still, Moniz has also said that greater regulatory efforts must be taken to control the environmental risks from fracking.