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The Biden Adviser Who Gives Climate Activists Nightmares

Ernest Moniz served as Obama’s secretary of energy. His ties to the fossil fuel industry have only deepened since then. Will Biden give him his old job back?

Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz speaks during the National Clean Energy Summit in 2017.
Isaac Brekken/Getty Images
Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz speaks during the National Clean Energy Summit in 2017.

If you haven’t heard of Ernest “Ernie” Moniz, there’s still a good chance you’ve seen a picture of him. The 75-year-old nuclear physicist, MIT professor emeritus, multimillionaire, and former energy secretary for the Obama administration sports longish silver hair that looks fit for a daguerrotype. His aesthetic sensibilities have turned him into a lovable meme among energy wonks, who for the most part regard him as a slightly quirky but eminently competent, whip-smart technocrat, credited as a central figure in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal.

In the last few weeks, this once-improbable figure of controversy has become a symbol of just how much climate politics have changed since the Obama era—a flashpoint in a growing fight over what energy policy should look like in a potential post-Trump government that won’t just be fighting to reestablish the rules and programs he gutted but to transform the country’s energy system in time to avert runaway climate catastrophe. Moniz, a “good friend” of Biden’s, has been informally advising his campaign since at least last May, and his Energy Futures Initiative’s partnership with certain unions has been an influential voice in crafting the former vice president’s and the party’s approach to climate issues. Sources tracking transition talks say he could even be in the running to take back his old job as energy secretary.  

That’s a prospect that worries climate watchers. Earlier this month, 145 progressive groups sent a letter to Joe Biden’s campaign, urging the candidate to “ban all fossil fuel executives, lobbyists, and representatives from any advisory or official position on your campaign, transition team, cabinet, and administration.” Many of them say Moniz fits the bill.

Moniz has had several lucrative relationships with fossil fuel companies during his career, including as an adviser to BP. The Energy Initiative he founded at MIT—like many such initiatives in academia, quietly run on oil money—brought in sizable donations from some of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers, and produced research that made the case for their growth. He disclosed his full financial holdings and industry ties when first being considered to head the Department of Energy in 2013, and resigned from any posts that might carry conflicts of interest. Since leaving government in 2017, though, he’s accepted a paid position with a fossil fueled utility whose work he supported at the DOE. Through it all, he’s proudly maintained his commitment to an Obama-era energy strategy that climate advocates say belongs in history’s dustbin: the “all of the above” approach first outlined in a 2012 speech, which pairs renewables investment with fossil fuel growth. A representative for Moniz said Moniz would not be available to comment on this story.

The typical defense of a once-and-future political appointee’s between-administrations industry work is to normalize it. But “it’s not true that everyone came out and worked for fossil fuel companies or that there are not experts on climate without fossil fuel ties,” said Collin Rees of Oil Change International, one of the groups that signed the letter to Biden opposing fossil fuel appointees. Taking money from the fossil fuel industry was a choice, he said—one made by Moniz as well as fellow Obama administration alums Amos Hochstein, Jason Bordoff, and Heather Zichal, who have accepted jobs, payment, or research funding from fossil fuel companies since leaving government. It wasn’t a universal choice, though: “This is not an indictment of all Obama staffers,” he added.

One of Moniz’s connections that’s come under scrutiny is Southern Company—a mammoth integrated electric utility that got $407 million in financing from the Department of Energy during Moniz’s tenure for a “clean coal” plant that was never completed. After championing the doomed project and leaving office, Moniz joined the company’s board in March 2018. According to Southern’s proxy statements, he accepted a combined $486,668 worth of fees and stock awards from Southern in 2018 and 2019.

Southern was among the first companies to sue the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency over the Clean Power Plan, claiming that its compliance timeline was too short and would cost them too much money. Its subsidiaries have spent considerable sums lobbying against climate-friendly policies at the state level with little transparency. Like many other utilities, Southern helped fund outright climate denial on its own and as a member of the Edison Electric Institute and the Global Climate Coalition. In 1991, Southern teamed up with the EEI to form the Information Council on the Environment, an ad campaign intended to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” A Freedom of Information request filed by Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center found that between 2006 and 2015, Southern spent $400,000 funding the largely debunked research of climate skeptic Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, complementing donations from ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute. In exchange, Soon allowed Southern to review his work, which focuses mainly on the idea that the sun—rather than greenhouse gas emissions—is to blame for global warming. Southern CEO Tom Fanning has echoed this denial of human-driven global warming in recent years. “Is climate change happening? Certainly. It’s been happening for millennia,” Fanning told CNBC in 2017. Speaking together at a Bipartisan Policy Institute event in 2016, Fanning said he and Moniz were “kind of a tag team,” and the two traveled together on multiple occasions during Moniz’s time at DOE.

Moniz defended his ties to Southern last week after being asked about progressive criticism. “I do not agree with the characterization of the Southern Company as a fossil fuel company,” he told Axios’s Amy Harder, likening the assertion to the idea that “anybody who drives an internal combustion car is a fossil fuel company because they use them.”

This notion that utility companies are not in fact fossil fuel companies, because the energy they provide can theoretically come from anywhere, is not particularly convincing in Southern’s case. Southern generates just 12 percent of its power from renewables, getting more of its power from fossil fuels (72 percent) than the national average (63 percent). One subsidiary, Georgia Power, generates only 3 percent of power from renewables.

But Moniz has ties to bona fide fossil fuel companies, too. And to understand the full extent of them, one has to go back to before he joined the Obama administration.

From 2005 to 2011, Moniz served on BP’s Technology Advisory Council. Although it’s not known whether Moniz was paid for his position, at least one member received a nominal sum of $6,200 for their role. Former BP CEO Lord John Browne is the chair of the nonprofit Moniz founded after leaving office, the Energy Futures Initiative, which launched the same day as Moniz’s for-profit firm, EJM Associates, Inc. EJM, in turn—a “strategic consulting firm that helps clients navigate the transition to a global clean energy economy by advising on a range of energy policy, innovation, and security issues,” per one job description—has a partnership with G2 Net-Zero LNG, a gas export company that Moniz’s Energy Department authorized to export natural gas for 30 years in 2015, when the company was called “G2 LNG.”

The Energy Initiative Moniz founded at MIT counted ExxonMobil, Shell, and Eni among its founding members, a title that came with a minimum $5 million commitment to “support sponsored research projects aligned with their strategic interests.” As of 2012—the year before Moniz left MIT to become energy secretary—BP had granted $50 million to the Energy Institute. Moniz was also a founding trustee of the Saudi Aramco–backed King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, among several other industry posts he resigned from in advance of his DOE appointment.

A specific concern cited by critics is Moniz’s role championing natural gas and fracking, which is now believed to be behind a spike in atmosphere-warming methane emissions. Prior to joining the Obama administration in 2013, Moniz led the team behind an influential 2011 study from MIT’s Energy Initiative titled “The Future of Natural Gas,” mapping out an extensive role for natural gas in reducing the country’s emissions. “The analysis in this study provides the confirmation. Natural gas truly is a bridge to a low-carbon future,” Moniz said at a press conference announcing the report. In essence, the study argues that gas is an essential bridge as nuclear power, carbon capture, and renewables become economical in the coming decades.

While presented as independent research, the report itself was sponsored by several fossil fuel companies and front groups. Among the most generous was the American Clean Skies Foundation, founded in 2007 by the late Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon, who was instrumental in helping to sell fracking to Wall Street investors. The report called the environmental impacts of fracking—including methane emissions, which are shorter-lived but 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide—“challenging but manageable.”

Study co-chair Anthony Meggs joined the gas company Talismen Energy before the report was released, just as Moniz took a paid position with ICF International, an energy consultancy that the American Petroleum Institute hired to study the economic benefits of liquefied natural gas exports. By the time he resigned from ICF and other industry posts to become energy secretary, Moniz had received $305,648 in compensation from ICF. Another study group member, former CIA Director John Deutch, was at the time serving on the board of Cheniere Energy. The same year the report was released, Cheniere became the first company in the Lower 48 states approved to export liquefied natural gas after receiving a final greenlight from the DOE.

“It’s hard to under-state the importance of Moniz and Deutch’s report,” Public Accountability Institute researcher Rob Galbraith, who authored an extensive report on the MIT study, tweeted recently. “Beyond creating the architecture for the Obama administration’s fracked gas export regime, it was deployed in media and in Congress to counter popular opposition to fracking in the United States.”

In government, Moniz continued to make the case for natural gas. The fateful 2010 fracking study would even appear in his official White House portrait. Shortly after taking office, Moniz pledged to move “expeditiously” on liquefied natural gas export permits. His office opened up key markets for U.S. fossil fuel producers and approved its second-ever export terminal just after his appointment in May 2013. Moniz appointed the American Gas Association’s Paula Gant to serve as deputy assistant secretary of energy for oil and natural gas.

Questioned by reporters over the years, Moniz has defended his various industry ties on the grounds that “industry is an essential part of the climate mitigation solution,” as his spokesperson told the Center for Public Integrity’s Jie Jenny Zou. This was a more widely accepted assertion during the Obama administration, whose flagship, unsuccessful legislative fight on climate was premised on a compromise with polluters. As the full emissions toll of extraction has come into sharper view and the climate crisis has grown more unavoidable, those attitudes have changed, amid demands from an increasingly muscular climate and anti-corporate movement. 

Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project, which tracks ties between corporations and government officials, worries that Moniz’s industry ties make him a poor fit for a Cabinet position, in particular. “Moniz is chummy with industry leaders who need to be wiped out if the planet is to be saved. This is not a time for amiable people who get along with everyone. That’s particularly true in the executive branch, where we need someone committed to exercising all existing powers, including little-used ones, to avert the climate crisis,” Hauser said. “Collegiality and dealmaking may well be necessary in Congress. Within the executive branch, you are going to need someone who pushes lawyers, scientists, and policy professionals to get every last bit of carbon and methane reduction that is possible out of the system under current law.”

If anything, while many in his party moved away from Obama-era comfort with fossil fuels, Moniz appears to have doubled down. In April, EFI announced the formation of a partnership with the AFL-CIO Energy Committee known as the Labor Energy Partnership, whose representative, Austin Keyser, got a lengthy speaking spot during this year’s DNC platform committee meeting. One member of the group, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers President Lonnie Stephenson, was recently added to Biden’s transition team and was already a member of the campaign’s Climate Engagement Advisory Council. IBEW, and Stephenson specifically, has opposed any fossil fuel phaseouts as part of a comprehensive climate plan.

Unsurprisingly, then, one of LEP’s principles is that climate policy “must be based on an ‘all-of-the above’ energy source strategy that is regionally focused, flexible, preserves optionality, and addresses the crisis of stranded workers,” rather than targeting any particular fuel source for phaseout. The position conflicts with current scientific consensus on necessary steps to avoid catastrophic global warming: According to the 2019 Production Gap Report, the world’s governments are on track to produce 50 percent more coal, oil, and gas than can safely be burned to keep cap warming at two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and 120 percent more than is consistent with a 1.5 degree target—in line with the “well below” two degrees threshold outlined by the Paris Agreement. Fossil fuel use, in other words, would need to decrease, and rapidly.

Moniz, meanwhile, has continued to tout gas as “a critical element” in changing the country’s energy mix, crediting the fuel source for having “caused a revolution that has led to a majority of our carbon reduction” at an event at Tulane University last October. “The transition to a deeply decarbonized economy may not necessarily require the elimination of fossil fuels,” states an EFI report outlining its Green Real Deal, which Moniz launched as a counter to the Green New Deal at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce summit last year. “Natural gas, in particular, will continue to play an important role in providing dispatchable electric power generation and high-temperature industrial process heat—applications that are not readily amenable to non-fossil fuel options.”

Controversy over Moniz’s role in the Biden campaign comes as the campaign attempts to show it’s serious about climate change. In recent months, the campaign has incorporated both proposals and staff members from the further left and more climate-ambitious campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Jay Inslee, and Elizabeth Warren. Michelle Deatrick, national chair of the DNC’s Council on the Environment and Climate Crisis and a Sanders supporter during the primary, says she’s been “very encouraged” by her talks with the Biden campaign during and since the DNC platform was agreed to in August. “There’s listening going on, and we’re moving toward a bolder plan that approaches what we need to do,” she told me.

Moniz’s proximity to the Biden campaign, however, makes her nervous. “The country’s on fire,” Deatrick said. “[The people] we put into positions of power are going to have a huge impact on whether or not we escape the worst parts of the climate crisis. We just cannot have people who have a financial interest in continuing our reliance on fossil fuel extraction and emissions.”

In his address to the DNC platform committee in July, Moniz once again emphasized the need for an “all of the above” approach. The first goal of the LEP, moreover, is to “create a national action plan for the deployment of carbon capture, utilization and sequestration technology.” It’s a strategy similar to the one outlined in Southern Company’s goal announced in May of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, largely through negative emissions technologies, maintaining hearty investments in gas and coal.

“The economics pretty much just don’t work in any situation,” Collin Rees, senior campaigner with Oil Change International, says of carbon capture technologies. “The only way they conceivably work is if it’s massively subsidized by the government. It’s incredibly important to the fossil fuel industry that they can hold onto this facade of CCS.”

Meanwhile, Lonnie Stephenson touted the benefits of “clean coal” at a virtual campaign event last week, citing his union’s work with Moniz on all-of-the-above energy strategies. That clean coal will power the way to decarbonization has been a common fossil fuel industry talking point with little basis in reality, and climate scientists have warned about the dangers of relying too heavily on that and other still prohibitively expensive, largely unproven carbon removal technologies to mitigate the climate crisis. 

As a board member at Southern Company and former energy secretary, Moniz should know the limits of carbon removal better than most: The utility’s Kemper Project was intended to showcase its potential, converting coal to gas and removing the majority of the power plant’s carbon dioxide emissions. Visiting the Kemper site as energy secretary in 2013, Moniz said his department was “committed to advancing technologies that make coal more efficient, economical, and environmentally sustainable—securing its place in America’s clean energy future while fighting the effects of climate change.” The facility received generous support from the DOE after it got underway in 2010. Following years of ballooning budgets, mismanagement, and alleged fraud, Southern announced in 2018 that the plant would run on conventional natural gas, with costs having skyrocketed from $2.4 billion to $7.5 billion. As Steve Horn has reported, Southern Company also runs a DOE-backed National Carbon Capture Center that could stand to gain from further federal investment.

“If you’re Moniz, it’s not psychically satisfying to believe you failed to utilize executive branch powers in ways that would avert catastrophe,” said Jeff Hauser, making the case for newer voices in the administration. “You’re much less likely to think that if you come into government relatively fresh and without an emotional connection to the policies of the past. A clear-eyed, science-driven view of what’s happening would suggest the policies of the past are insufficient.”

Last time around, Moniz encountered little resistance from lawmakers during his Senate confirmation and was sworn in by a 97–0 vote. Should he get the nod this time, progressives hope that’ll be different. “If you’re Merkley or Markey or Whitehouse,” Demand Progress Executive Director David Segel said, referring to the senators from Oregon, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, respectively, “and want to maintain credibility on climate and somebody like Moniz is put before you, then you are going to have to oppose confirmation.” The simpler solution—and the one progressives signing the letter hope for—is that the Biden team will avoid Moniz and similar fossil fuel enthusiasts altogether.