Ernest Moniz, Obama pick for energy secretary, criticized for conflict of interest on fracking

Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Ernest Moniz smiles during his nomination by US President Barack Obama to run the Energy Department on March 4, 2013 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC.
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Ernest Moniz, President Obama's choice to become the next energy secretary, did not disclose personal financial conflicts of interest in a study he helped author that discussed the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), according to a new report.

The report, "Industry Partner of Industry Puppet?," comes from the nonprofit Public Accountability Initiative, which has released a series of reports spotlighting what it sees as conflicts of interest in fracking research. The group focuses on a 2011 study called "The Future of Natural Gas," which was released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Moniz is a professor. The study Moniz co-chaired found that the natural gas often released through fracking "provides a cost-effective bridge" to cleaner energy production.

Moniz has come under fire from some environmentalists, with one calling him a "shill" for the shale gas industry. At a 2011 Senate hearing in which he discussed his findings from the "Future of Natural Gas" report, the Washington Post reported, Moniz testified that "natural gas can indeed play an important role over the next couple of decades (together with demand management) in economically advancing a clean energy system." By 2050, he added, natural gas would be phased out in favor of cleaner energy systems, like solar and wind. 

The Public Accountability Initiative report found that the MIT study "is marred by undisclosed conflicts of interest, pro-industry advocacy, and poor scholarship similar to that which resulted in retractions and resignations at other universities." According to the report, Moniz joined the board of a consulting firm called ICF International that has ties to the oil and gas industry just prior to the release of the MIT study - and has received more than $305,000 in effective compensation from the firm since 2011.

The Public Accountability Initiative also notes that the study was funded by oil and gas industry sources, as the study acknowledged when it was released, and that MIT's Energy Initiative was funded with over $145 million over its seven-year history from oil and gas companies.

Representatives for the MIT Energy Initiative did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But an appendix to the report includes a response from the Initiative in which it says that the "notion that these findings are developed based on anything other than the unbiased research of MIT researchers is false." The response goes on to say that the report includes sections with recommendations "that industry may or may not agree with," including a call for a coordinated effort by industry and government to minimize the environmental impacts of shale gas development through research and regulation.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the report. The president supports fracking as part of an "all of the above" energy strategy. 

The Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing to consider Moniz's nomination on April 9. If confirmed, he will replace outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

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