Home > Uncategorized > Obama’s Energy Secretary Pick Has Some Problems

Obama’s Energy Secretary Pick Has Some Problems

Professor Moniz and MIT Report The Latest Example of “Frackademia”

Corporate capture of government and the destruction of academic and scientific integrity

Perhaps the most under-reported story flying recently under the media radar involves President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Energy,  MIT professor Ernest J. Moniz.

Obama made the announcement back on March 4, and Moniz received favorable media coverage.

Typical is this sketch from the NY Times:

In choosing Dr. Moniz, Mr. Obama has once again selected a nuclear physicist, although one with more political experience; Dr. Moniz was the under secretary of energy in President Bill Clinton’s second term.

Dr. Moniz, like his predecessor, Dr. Chu, is highly focused on how to meet a skyrocketing global demand for energy while mitigating adverse effects on the environment, and like Dr. Chu, he has focused on the need for technology innovation.

He also shares with Dr. Chu a scientist’s view of politics. In a memo posted on his program’s Web site in November 2012, he said that the M.I.T. Energy Initiative was continuing to supply technical research “in the interest of providing some degree of rationality in the ongoing political discussion.”

How’s that? Just what is “a scientist’s view of politics“? (presumably, the NY Times refers to the old discredited caricature – the dichotomy of pristine objective fact based neutral science, versus subjective and value based politics).

On the one hand, Moniz is praised by media as having “more political experience”, but on the other hand, he himself touts his ability to provide “some degree of rationality in the ongoing political discussion.”

Does the media not see some tension, if not a glaring contradiction there?

In a sort of pre-emptive way, right out of the gate, NY Times climate blogger Andrew Revkin engaged and dismissed this issue superficially.

[Could that be because Revkin himself is biased and was caught up in the “Frackademia” PR game ? see this and read on: An M.I.T. Plan for Natural Gas with Planet in Mind (Andy Revkin, New York Times “Dot Earth” blog, June 9, 2011)]

Revkin is a well informed peddler of conventional wisdom.  At the outset, based only on a press release,  he attempted to downplay that tension and dismiss environmental critics (who are disdainfully dismissed in one word as “campaigners”, i.e. unlike the savvy and rigorously scientific Revkin, these “campaigners” are scientifically illiterate political advocates).

Revkin wrote: (curiously, without mentioning or linking to his prior June 9, 2011 story on the MIT fracking Report)

Moniz is already taking heat from some environmental campaigners for his work directing the M.I.T. Energy Initiative, which — like many university energy and climate research hubs — receives ample funding from industries selling or dependent on fossil fuels. Among other things, he is a proponent of gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. I’ve come to know Moniz over years of contact as a reliable, transparent and data-driven researcher and think he’ll do well in this position. (I still think Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, would have done well, too.)

But perhaps two recent in depth investigative reports can overcome Revkin’s early casual dismissal and shed some light on Moniz’s “view of politics” and science, as he practices them up at MIT.

I suspect that this investigative work will play a role in Moniz’s Senate confirmation hearing on April 9 –

If we had a functioning democracy, it most certainly would.

One indication of that this might play a role is that the Obama message people are already working the beltway media to marginalize critics and create an air of inevitability.

The best example of that beltway cynicism and spin is Politico’s set up promotional piece:  Ernest Moniz should have an easy time before Senate. This quote says it all – ultimate beltway insider Dan Weiss is backing Obama and doesn’t want to waste any bullets criticizing Obama’s pro-energy industry pick:

Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy with the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, said the flurry of attention “is basically background noise.”

If the Obama people are trotting out their loyal “environmental” backers to deflect criticism as “background noise”, that means they’re scared.

So lets take a quick look at what Mr. Weiss dismissed as “background noise”.

First, we consider ProPublica’s work: Drilling Deeper: The Wealth of Business Connections for Obama’s Energy Pick:

Here’s what we know about Moniz’s recent involvement with the energy industry:

  • He was on BP’s Technology Advisory Council between 2005 and 2011, a position for which he received a stipend, according to BP. Spokesman Matt Hartwig said the company does not disclose details of such payments. (A 2012 BP financial report disclosed that one council member received about $6,200.) The council “provides feedback and advice to BP’s executive management as to the company’s approach to research and technology,” according to the company. BP has also provided $50 million in funding to Moniz’s MIT Energy Initiative. Moniz talked about that relationship while delivering a warm introduction before a 2009 speech at MIT by BP’s then-CEO Tony Hayward.
  • From 2002 to 2004, Moniz sat on the strategic advisory council of USEC, a public company that provides enriched uranium to nuclear power plants. A company spokesman said Moniz was paid for his role on the nine-member council, but declined to say how much. USEC, which has been seeking a $2 billion loan guarantee from the Energy Department for a centrifuge plant in Ohio, has applauded Moniz’s nomination.
  • He’s on the board of ICF International, a Fairfax, Virginia-based company which does energy and environmental consulting. It has received Energy Department contracts as part of what one executive called a “longstanding relationship with the Department of Energy.” As a board member, Moniz got $158,000 in cash and stock in 2011, according to the company’s most recent annual report.
  • He is on the strategic advisory council of NGP Energy Technology Partners, a private equity firm that invests in both alternative energy and fossil fuel companies. The Washington, D.C.-based firm declined to comment.
  • He is on the board of advisers of another private equity firm, the Angeleno Group,which says it provides “growth capital for next generation clean energy and natural resources companies.” The Los Angeles-based firm didn’t respond to requests for comment.
  • He is a trustee of the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC), a Saudi Aramco-backed nonprofit organization. The organization did not respond to requests for comment.
  • He was on the board of directors of the Electric Power Research Institute from 2007 to 2011, following a stint on the group’s advisory council that began in 2002. A nonprofit utility consortium, the organization does research for the industry with an annual budget of over $300 million. The group paid Moniz $8,000 between 2009 and 2011, according to its most recent tax returns
  • Since 2006, Moniz has been on the board of General Electric’s “ecomagination” advisory board which advises the company on “critical environmental and business issues.” The company did not respond to inquiries about compensation.

But even more significant than all those financial ties and conflicts of interest, a second Report shed light on how Moniz views scientific integrity, academic science, and politics –  and the picture it paints sure ain’t pretty. Frankly, the findings are alarming and damning.

The Public Accountability Initiative published a disturbing Report: Industry Partner or Industry Puppet?  How MIT’s influential report on fracking was authored, funded, and released by oil and gas industry insiders

Several universities have released high-profile studies on the subject of fracking that dismissed environmental concerns, but were later found to be tainted by poor scholarship, pro-industry bias, and significant conflicts of interest stemming from ties to industry. Rather than inform the public, the reports appear to have been designed to manipulate public opinion about fracking. The fallout has been significant, prompting resignations and retractions at the University of Texas, the University at Buffalo, and Penn State.1 The Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) has been at the forefront of efforts to expose this trend, which has come to be known as “frackademia.”2

This PAI report examines yet another high profile study of fracking: MIT’s “The Future of Natural Gas” report, released in June 2011. The nomination of MIT professor Ernest J. Moniz as the next energy secretary has put a new spotlight on the report, which endorsed “natural gas as a bridge to a low-carbon future.”3 Moniz served as chair of the study group that authored the report and directs the MIT Energy Initiative, which released the report.

The MIT report 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, yet it has not received the same level of critical attention.4

Authored by industry. Key authors of the study, including Moniz himself, failed to disclose personal financial conflicts of interest in report materials or at events where the report was presented:

• Study chair Ernest Moniz took a lucrative position on the board of ICF International, a consulting firm with significant oil and gas ties, just prior to the release of the report. ICF cited shale gas analysis as a key profit driver for its energy business weeks before Moniz joined its board; it sells a proprietary gas market analysis tool and works for oil and gas clients such as America’s Natural Gas Alliance. Moniz’s ICF compensation since 2011 is valued at $305,648.5 He has also served on the advisory board of NGP Energy Technology Partners, which invests in oil and gas companies, since 2006, but it is  unclear if he receives compensation in this position.

  1. Funded and advised by industry. The MIT study was also funded by oil and gas industry sources and advised by a committee dominated by industry representatives.
  • Report funding. The report was funded by oil and gas industry sources, including the American Clean Skies Foundation, which is closely linked to Chesapeake Energy. These funders were acknowledged in the report.
  • Report advisory committee. Though the study’s advisory committee was billed as a group of “leaders from industry, government and environmental groups,” it was dominated by individuals with strong oil and gas industry ties.
  • MIT Energy Initiative funding. The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), directed by Moniz, receives extraordinary amounts of funding – over $145 million over its seven-year history – from oil and gas giants like BP and Chevron.

Though the MIT report named its funders, its failure to disclose its authors’ industry ties suggests that MIT did not have proper systems in place for disclosing and managing conflicts of interest. 7 The MIT Energy Initiative’s response to PAI’s findings is telling in this regard. The response, which is included in the appendix, begins: “The notion that these findings are developed based on anything other than the unbiased research of MIT researchers is false.” The response notes that authors filed disclosure forms with the university, but does not address PAI’s queries about whether MIT and the Energy Initiative viewed the study authors’ industry ties as conflicts of interest and managed them as such. The response raises red flags about how the Energy Initiative understands and handles conflicts of interest. 8

On the question of bias, there are signs that the study authors were not relying on sound research in authoring a study that was so bullish on the future of natural gas. Though a full review of the study is outside the scope of this report, the third section takes a closer look at the thin evidence underlying two of the MIT study’s most significant and widely amplified pro-industry claims:

  • Environmental impacts. There is no substantive research backing the study’s claim that fracking-related environmental risks are “challenging but manageable.”
  • Gas exports. The report offers little evidence backing its argument for the development of a global gas market complete with LNG exports. For instance, it cites the economic benefits associated with a global gas market without including any discussion of price impacts.University-industry partnerships support a great deal of academic research in the United States, but it is important to safeguard this research against improper industry influence. The significant conflicts of interest, gas industry advocacy, and poor scholarship in the MIT study suggest that the university did nothing to ensure that it was not acting as an industry mouthpiece in endorsing natural gas.

I urge you to read the entire Report.

This really is part of a much larger debate about the wholesale corporate capture and control of government and the prostitution and absolute destruction of academic and scientific integrity.

Never mind the energy policies they reflect, if these tactics go unchallenged, we surely are doomed.

I hope someone stands up for those institutions and ideas.

[ps – and what the hell is the former head of the CIA doing at MIT on energy?

John Deutch, an MIT professor and the former director of the CIA, served as one of the members of the “Future of Natural Gas” study group. Deutch chaired the hydraulic fracturing advisory subcommittee convened by Energy Secretary Steven Chu in May 2011. Deutch had significant personal ties to the oil and gas industry that were not disclosed in the MIT report. 

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:
You must be logged in to post a comment.