President Obama on Monday turned to Massachusetts for his nominees to the nation’s top energy and environmental posts, tapping MIT physicist Ernest J. Moniz to lead the Energy Department and former state environmental official Gina McCarthy to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
“These two over here,” Obama said from the White House as Moniz and McCarthy stood nearby, “they’re going to be making sure that we’re investing in American energy, that we’re doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change, that we’re going to be creating jobs and economic opportunity.”
The president’s choices highlight the central role that Massachusetts has played in shaping the national outlook on the environment during a “burst of energy innovation” in the last several years, said Salo Zelermyer, an attorney at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP and former senior counsel for the Department of Energy.
Massachusetts, which boasts one of the nation’s leading alternative energy sectors, has been at the forefront of policies to combat climate change, protect the environment, and encourage non-polluting energy sources, such as wind and solar.
“It makes sense,” Zelermyer said, “that highly placed officials or intellectuals from that area would be looked at because they tend to share the president’s policy goals.”
If confirmed, Moniz and McCarthy would be charged with making good on Obama’s pledge in his inaugural address to “respond to the threat of climate change.” That would mean cutting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants and continuing to tighten vehicle fuel efficiency standards.
Moniz, a Brookline resident and member of MIT's faculty since 1973, would succeed outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu. A former undersecretary of energy under President Clinton, Moniz now serves on Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology. He directs MIT's Energy Initiative, which works across the school’s disciplines and with industry to research and address energy issues.
“It’s an absolutely inspired choice, [because Moniz is] a person who has deep experience in energy over a wide range of areas, all the way from solar and energy efficiency to nuclear power,” said John Deutch, an MIT colleague and a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. “He has studied energy problems from an academic and a professional perspective and he is deeply committed to helping the world avoid climate change.”
McCarthy, the EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation, would succeed her boss, Lisa Jackson. She is perhaps best known in Massachusetts for her work in crafting tough air pollution rules that cleaned up the “Filthy Five” — the state’s dirtiest coal- and oil-fired power plants.
McCarthy, who grew up in Canton, is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Boston and Tufts University. A career public servant, she worked in the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs under four Massachusetts governors, holding a top environmental policy post under Mitt Romney.
“You listen to Gina’s accent and she is Massachusetts through and through, but she has negotiated an incredible array of complex environmental agencies and issues,” said Susan Tierney, a managing principal at Analysis Group and a former assistant secretary at the US Energy Department. “She knows how to integrate scientific information into policy settings.”
In their new posts, Moniz and McCarthy would face decisions of whether to export domestically produced natural gas and how to make the controversial drilling technique known as fracking safer as energy companies unlock gas and oil reserves in shale deposits.
Moniz, who supports increased natural gas production and nuclear power as part of the nation’s energy mix, has come under fire from environmentalists and other critics. Some say his background, like Chu’s, is too academic. Chu, his critics say, never became comfortable navigating Washington politics and focused too much on research.
Environmentalists also worry that Moniz’s ties to the oil and gas industry, which provides financial support for the MIT Energy Institute, could lead to increased emphasis on fossil fuels and undercut support for clean energy technologies.
“We urge Mr. Moniz to prioritize clean, renewable energy as climate solutions over destructive fossil fuels and boondoggles like liquefied natural gas exports,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the national environmental group Sierra Club. “We urge him to leave dangerous nuclear energy and toxic fracking behind while focusing on safe, clean energy sources like wind and solar.”
Supporters, however, say Moniz is a brilliant intellectual who inspires colleagues with his level-headed and practical approach to energy issues.
Fomer MIT president Susan Hockfield said Moniz’s academic experience, government service, and familiarity with the energy industry make him “uniquely qualified” to lead the Energy Department. In particular, Hockfield said, Moniz’s industry connections will help the department translate ideas and policies into the marketplace.
His deep understanding of nuclear issues will allow him to deal with some of the department’s more challenging responsibilities, such as overseeing the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.
“As we have all seen, the Department of Energy is complex. It oversees a number of different kinds of operations, but Ernie has experience in many of the areas,” Hockfield said. “One of the talents that Ernie will bring is his ability to get input from a wide variety of people from many different domains.”
McCarthy started her career in 1980 as a public health official in her hometown of Canton and later in neighboring Stoughton. Peers say that background has driven her environmental work, which has focused on protecting public health.
A no-nonsense, consensus-building negotiator, McCarthy is described by those who have sat across the table from her as a woman who drills down to the essentials. She is regarded as bluntly honest about what she can deliver and where she will compromise.
“Gina was one of those people you could depend on to gather the facts before making a decision,” said Robert Rio, senior vice president at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest employers’ group.
“She can forge consensus with constituencies that are usually incredibly opposed,” added Cindy Luppi, New England director of Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group. “And she does it in a way that earns everyone’s respect.”Erin Ailworth can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.