Obama Energy Department Pick Grilled in Senate Confirmation Hearing

Dr. Ernest Moniz appears before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.


Dr. Ernest Moniz appears before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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Energy secretary nominee Dr. Ernest Moniz faced a flurry of questions from lawmakers during his confirmation hearing Tuesday, as Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee members tried to suss out how the Energy Department would look with Moniz at the helm.

Moniz, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with past experience as a Obama and Clinton administration advisor and DOE undersecretary, isn't expected to face much opposition to his nomination, according to experts. Ranking committee member Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, called Moniz potentially "a rare nominee that generates bipartisan support" in her opening comments.

[Q&A: Murkowski: Fossil Fuels Can Fund Clean Energy Development]

While some environmental groups have criticized Moniz for his support of hydraulic fracturing and greater natural gas development, most experts say Obama's nominee is a middle-of-the-road pick that might finally be able to make progress on important energy issues that have languished for decades.

"Energy policy is one of the most critical areas and this appointment is a very important decision that will have a tremendous impact on the entire industry," says Dr. Bernard L. Weinstein, Associate Director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University.

"[Moniz] is a very strong candidate who doesn't appear to have any political biases and he can make a very objective case for pursuing the energy policies of the [Obama] administration."

Still, lawmakers grilled Moniz on everything from natural gas exports to the nation's nuclear waste plans to the future of renewable energy in the United States – all issues that fall under the purview of the increasingly important Department of Energy in an era hyper-focused on energy resources, development, and security.

Moniz echoed President Barack Obama's commitment to an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy in his prepared remarks, vowing to pursue more domestic energy production while still protecting the environment and addressing climate risks. While that strategy would include more development of the nation's fossil fuel resources, it also calls for greater investment in new energy efficiency technologies, renewables, nuclear, carbon capture, and energy storage.

[READ: Senate GOP Energy Plan: Drill, Baby, Drill]

"The increase in U.S. unconventional oil production, combined with increased vehicle efficiency, will continue to reduce American oil imports and reduce our trade deficit," Moniz said. "New technology development and deployment can and must further reduce the associated environmental footprint."

While Moniz focused mostly on sweeping, general energy policies in his testimony, some lawmakers got specific with their interrogation of the potential Energy Secretary, wanting to know how Moniz would address issues that affect specific states. Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller brought up Yucca Mountain – the controversial proposed site of a nuclear waste repository in his state.

"No amount of reassurance from the federal government will reassure us that Nevada should be the nation's nuclear waste dump," Heller said, highlighting what Moniz characterized in his response as a long road ahead in moving the nuclear waste agenda forward.

Moniz also faced tough questions from South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott about a joint U.S./Russia project to convert massive amounts of excess weapons grade plutonium to commercial nuclear fuel. A South Carolina plant to engineer the conversion has so far cost $4 billion but remains only about 60 percent complete, according to Scott.

Still, Moniz didn't go through the gauntlet alone. Former Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft – the "energy equivalent of a couple of NBA all-stars" according to committee chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore. – introduced Moniz.

"I do not know anyone more suited to lead the Department of Energy at this difficult time than Dr. Moniz," Scowcroft said. "His dedication to the task, his comprehensive command of the issues involved, his acumen and judgement, all of which [are] underpinned by enthusiasm and good humor, are to me simply unparalleled."