Obama’s energy choice: Shill for shale gas industry

It is anticipated that President Barack Obama’s front-runner to replace Steven Chu as energy secretary will be Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Ernest Moniz. Given Moniz’s support for shale gas drilling, this seems akin to placing a fox in charge of the henhouse.

Moniz currently directs the MIT Energy Initiative, which has received more than $125 million from the natural gas industry since 2006. MITEI’s founders include BP, Shell, Italy’s Eni and Saudi Arabia’s Aramco.

A major MITEI “research” study was funded and shaped by the American Clean Skies Foundation, a creation of former Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon. Chesapeake is the second-largest natural gas producer in the U.S.

In 2011, the joint MIT-Clean Skies collaboration issued a report called “The Future of Natural Gas.” Moniz chaired the study panel, whose “advisory committee” included ACSF’s current and former CEOs. Exelon, Chevron and the Gas Technology Institute helped fund the study.

The report concluded that “unconventional gas, and particularly shale gas, will make an important contribution to future U.S. energy supply and carbon dioxide (CO2) emission reductions efforts.” It called natural gas the “bridge to a low-carbon future.”

While admitting that the environmental impact of shale gas was “challenging,” the study called it “manageable,” assuming that “large and small companies follow industry best practices.” Water supply and disposal concerns could be “coordinated on a regional basis” with “improved methods developed for recycling returned fracture fluids.”

MITEI said these “risks can be mitigated to acceptable levels through appropriate regulation and oversight,” noting that “regulation of shale gas activity is generally controlled at the state level.”

The lack of industry accountability, including failures to disclose fracking chemicals used, and the weakness of government oversight, particularly on state levels, appeared inconsequential to Moniz. He made no mention that in Pennsylvania, where Marcellus Shale fracking has turned once-rural areas into industrial zones, every secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection since it was founded has had ties to the natural gas industry.

Among the study’s highest level of recommendations was “to maximize the value to society of the substantial U.S. natural gas resource base.” Simply put: to expand drilling.

MIT’s gas industry complicity is not the first time, nor likely to be the last, that a major university released a report designed to counter the growing opposition to shale gas drilling. The academic reputations of Pennsylvania State University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of New York at Buffalo were all tarnished by taking natural gas industry money for studies concluding that fracking is safe. However, MIT is the most prestigious school to do so to date.

Big lie: natural gas better than coal

During his Feb. 12 State of the Union address, Obama claimed that climate change was a main concern of his second term. He even suggested he would consider executive actions if Congress failed to regulate carbon emissions. However with his next breath, Obama promised to encourage more drilling for natural gas, in essence giving a wink and a nod to industry executives.

His consideration of Moniz for energy secretary confirms this. Moniz’s study promotes the use of shale gas as an alternative to fossils fuels like coal, while seriously downplaying the question of methane release during fracking. The big industry lie is that natural gas is better for the climate than fossil fuels like coal or oil.

Studies have shown that heavy use of fracking actually promotes greater fossil-fuel reliance, while effectively putting investment in renewable technology on the back burner.

Unregulated fracking also leaves a higher carbon footprint than burning coal. Extracting gas requires significantly more energy, and a considerable quantity of methane escapes into the atmosphere during the process. In its unburned state, methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 25 times the warming impact of carbon dioxide.

Shortly before the MITEI study’s release, Cornell University scientists Robert Howarth, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea determined that “the methane … inevitably emitted from natural gas wells and pipelines is more than 100 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas during the first two decades after emission.” (NY Daily News, Nov. 29)

Moniz and his MITEI partners challenged the Cornell study, calling it “very weak.” The Clean Skies Foundation was among several industry groups that went on the attack, accusing Howarth and his partners of producing “garbage science.” Nonetheless, the MITEI report was modified to recommend that the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy “co-lead a new effort to review … the methane emission factors associated with natural gas.”

Subsequent studies, including one by Duke University scientists in 2011, have substantiated the Cornell study’s findings.

Moniz also promoted international trading for liquefied natural gas. In 2012 the Department of Energy proposed that the government begin easing restrictions on the export of natural gas. Pipelines to facilitate gas export are under construction.

Liquid natural gas terminals used for import into the U.S. are quietly being converted into export terminals. The natural gas industry stands to profit from this conversion. In Asian markets the price of natural gas is indexed to the price of crude oil, which hit international highs in 2011. Every unit of natural gas, which costs about $9 to produce and ship, can be sold for $12 to $15 to India or China — three times the U.S. market price.

In early 2012, $8 billion in U.S. natural gas deals were sold to foreign investors —companies with cash resources sufficient for them to wait for gas to be exported. When exports kick in, domestic prices will inevitably rise. Consumers grown dependent on natural gas will either pay higher prices or suffer in unheated homes.

Why not appoint an energy secretary who supports this process? While chairing a panel at the “Comparative Energy Policies and Technologies in France and USA Conference” in Austin, Texas, in late 2012, Moniz said, “There is no politician … who is going to walk away from [natural gas].” (blogs.scientificamerican.com, Dec. 17) Environmental concerns, he concluded, are not a deal killer.

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