News Column

Moniz Offers Olive Branch to Coal Industry

August 5, 2013
ernesto moniz
Energy Secretary Ernesto Moniz (file photo)

If the Obama administration is indeed waging a "war on coal," as its critics contend, then newly minted Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz aims to build a bridge between the opposing camps.

Since joining the administration about 10 weeks ago, Mr. Moniz -- a Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholar who is considered to have one of the nation's brightest minds on energy issues -- has offered an olive branch to the besieged American coal industry, widely viewed as the mortal enemy of a White House bent on drastically reducing carbon emissions and doubling down on investments in renewable fuels such as wind and solar power, at the direct expense of coal.

"There is no war on coal," Mr. Moniz insisted last week at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. "We start by saying we must control CO2 emissions. So then, after many years of talking the talk, the issue is walking the walk in terms of developing the technology to control those emissions."

Three days earlier, he visited West Virginia, one of the nation's largest coal-producing states and a state where President Obama is deeply unpopular, and stressed that clean coal will be a part of the nation's energy portfolio for years to come.

But his words stand in stark contrast to those of other administration officials, and it's not clear who has the upper hand when it comes to policy.

Last month, White House climate change adviser Daniel Schrag wrote in The New York Times that "a war on coal is exactly what's needed" as Mr. Obama pursues his ambitious agenda to fight climate change.

Mr. Obama boasted during his 2008 campaign that building a coal-fired power plant would be virtually impossible under his administration. Since he took office, the Environmental Protection Agency has been implementing a host of regulations that carry severe consequences for the coal sector, most notably emissions standards for power plants that are all but impossible for coal-powered plants to achieve with commercially available technology.

Last week, a West Virginia congressional delegation visited the White House to sit down with new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and voice their concerns that the agency is slowly crushing the coal sector. Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, called the meeting "productive" but said deep fear remains among coal-state lawmakers that the regulatory burden will only get worse.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, was a late addition to the meeting. He said in a statement afterward that he told the EPA officials that hundreds of his constituents were out of work directly because of the administration's "overzealous, ideological, and financially devastating policies."

But if the EPA and other arms of the administration are playing the "bad cop" with respect to the coal industry, Mr. Moniz is beginning to carve out his role as the "good cop," analysts say.

"What Moniz's job may be, because he does have credibility as a guy who understands energy, is to go around telling everybody that everything is going to be OK, don't get too upset" about regulations, said Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the conservative Institute for Energy Research. "Frankly, Moniz understands energy. He's steeped in it. He at least understands energy and the importance of it. He's not going to go out of his way to punch people in the nose."

Rather than sounding a hostile note toward coal, Mr. Moniz instead is touting the fuel's future.

He repeatedly reminded reporters at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast that the Obama administration has invested more than $6 billion into "carbon-capture" research that may allow coal-fired power plants to meet increasingly harsh limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

Much of that technology already has been developed but remains prohibitively expensive for energy companies. The administration's goal, Mr. Moniz said, isn't to eliminate coal, but to help make carbon-capture affordable enough for coal to remain in the energy mix.

"The goal of innovation in this business is to drive the cost down," he said. "Getting the cost down makes policy a lot easier."

Although no one disputed Mr. Moniz's credentials and expertise in the energy field, it's unclear just how large a role he will play in the White House's broader agenda.

He has deflected questions, for example, about the proposed Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline, a project that is stalled as President Obama weighs whether to give it his approval. Asked repeatedly about the $7 billion project last week, Mr. Moniz wouldn't give an opinion on it and indicated that he hasn't been consulted about whether Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry should approve the pipeline.

"My basic thought is that responsibility rests with Secretary Kerry to do the analysis and make a recommendation on that," Mr. Moniz said. "If we are asked to comment, it would be purely on some technical issues, as opposed to the decision-making process."

Those comments may offer a clue about Mr. Moniz's role in the administration, Mr. Kish said.

"Policy is being run out of the White House," Mr. Kish said. "How is the energy secretary supposed to be responsible for energy in this country when the State Department is making the decision on Keystone? It's sort of like secretary in name only. On the biggest issues affecting energy in the United States, he doesn't have any say over those and doesn't seem to have any input."

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