Nominee to Lead Energy Department Noncommittal on LNG Exports

Dr. Moniz is a respected physicist who has spent years working at the intersection of policy and scientific research.

Before returning to MIT in 2001, he spent four years as undersecretary of the Energy Department. So he’s had practice artfully dodging questions and providing diplomatic, often-vague answers.

Both the committee chairman Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and the panel’s top Republican, Senator Lisa Murkowski used their first comments to pin the nominee down on exporting liquefied natural gas.

Sen. Murkowski asked whether he supports exports of LNG, and Dr. Moniz responded:

“I believe the Natural Gas Act suggests we should move forward with licenses unless there is a clear public interest issue.”

Dr. Moniz went on to say that cumulative effects, including overall cost, need to be examined before the Energy Department would grant an export license.

“But fundamentally, I think all of these issues have to come together,” he said. “And we’ll make a transparent, analytically based evaluation application by application.”

A case by case approval process could be what export skeptics want to hear. Sen. Wyden, a critic of exporting natural gas, said he’s concerned what exports would do to prices at both the national and regional levels.

Confirmation hearings provide senators a chance to rally a base and bring up parochial, home-state issues.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from increasingly Republican West Virginia, asked Dr. Moniz some pointed questions about threats to coal.

“How much longer will taxpayers have to subsidize renewables?” he asked. “Until they’re able to compete in the marketplace on their own?”

Dr. Moniz dodged the question; offering up a long, winding answer. He said the role of the government in energy production is to “make sure the marketplace has options.”

The Department of Energy oversees all sorts of programs: from a controversial loan program for energy firms to regulating fracking to assuring the safety of the country’s nuclear weapons.

Sen. Murkowski made note of the heavy load.

“You are not signing up for the easiest job here,” she said in her opening remarks.

One thing the Energy Department is not responsible for is federal tax policy. But that’s what Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a Tea Party favorite, asked about. He wanted to know whether Dr. Moniz supports a carbon tax.

Dr. Moniz responded in a fairly straight forward way: He’s not the right person to ask.

“First of all, it’s important to note the administration has not proposed a carbon tax and has no plan to do so,” he said. “That’s the first point. The second point, the Department of Energy is not the locus of discussion for such fiscal policies.”

Dr. Moniz is expected to pass through both the committee and full Senate. Sen. Wyden supports the nomination, and he hopes to bring the nominee back for a vote sometime soon.

Because in Wyden’s words, “the sooner he’s confirmed, the sooner he can get to work.”

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