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Moniz: Fracking Natural Gas Provides Bridge to Zero-Carbon Future

Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary-designate Ernest J. Moniz fielded questions about his position on hydraulic fracturing (fracking), natural gas exports and climate change during his confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota, home of the Bakken Shale boom, asked the nominee if he believed that fracking was the same across the entire country. "They all involve hydraulic, and they all involve fracturing. But the applications are different [in different regions]," side-stepped Moniz.

Hoeven tried to get Moniz, who supports expanded natural gas use, to commit to state regulation of fracking rather than federal regulation, but the DOE nominee would not go that far (see Shale Daily, Sept.8, 2011). "We need to have best practices" in place for fracking, which would vary site by site.

Moniz, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes that fracking, which is used to stimulate shale gas and oil wells, will help provide a low-carbon bridge to a zero-carbon America fueled by renewables and nuclear energy. But he doesn't see the U.S. reaching that goal anytime soon. Moniz credited the natural gas "revolution" with jobs growth and noted that the nation has enough natural gas to last more than 150 years.

Sen. Al Franken (R-MN) urged Moniz to ensure that funding is made available for energy research and development of new technologies, such as micro-seismic imaging, which have been responsible for much of the revolution in natural gas. "We will try to leverage the funding as much as we can," if he is confirmed, he said. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) recommended that the tax credit for unconventional gas be repealed with the revenue generated going toward research. "It seems to [me] that it's done its job" and that the funds should be spent elsewhere, Alexander said.

Moniz also committed to review the DOE's study on natural gas exports, which relied on what some have said is outdated information and failed to examine the regional impacts of exporting LNG. "We need to have strong analysis grounded in the best data...In terms of the export license question, we certainly want to make sure that we are using data that is relevant to the decision at hand," he said.

Given the "breadth of support" for Moniz at the hearing, Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) said he hopes to swiftly pass Moniz's nomination out of the committee.

Wyden touted natural gas as a low carbon emitter, noting that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) last week reported that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions dropped to their lowest level since 1994 last year due to power generators' increasing reliance on low-priced natural gas to fuel their facilities.

In response to a question from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Moniz said he supported "very much" picking up the federal government's pace to a lower carbon economy.

"Natural gas...has the potential to bolster the U.S. standing on the issue of climate [change]," Wyden said.

On the issue of a carbon tax, Moniz said the administration has not proposed such a tax and has no plans to do so.

At the hearing, Moniz acknowledged his prior support for natural gas exports. "I believe the Natural Gas Act suggests that one should move forward with licenses unless there is a clear public interest issue." But he did not indicate, if confirmed by the Senate, whether he would step up the permitting of applications to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) to world markets.

So far, DOE has slow-walked permits for LNG exports to countries with which the U.S. does not have a free trade agreement (FTA). Cheniere Energy Inc. is the only company to have so far secured DOE authorizations to export domestically sourced LNG to both FTA and non-FTA countries from its Sabine Pass LNG export project in Louisiana.

Although the nominee previously has been roundly criticized for his past ties to the oil and gas industry, this was not mentioned during the hearing. He was the founding director of the MIT Energy Initiative, which had four founding members: BP, Shell, Italy's ENI and Saudi Arabia. American Clean Skies Foundation, which was founded by Aubrey McClendon, the ex-CEO of Chesapeake, also participated (see Shale Daily, May 2, 2012).

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