WASHINGTON — President Obama expressed great confidence when he nominated Ernest Moniz, an MIT professor, to be secretary of energy, saying the renowned physicist could balance scientific rigor with the demands of private industry and knows that “we can grow our economy while still taking care of our air, our water, and our environment.’’
But some critics question that assertion, contending that Moniz’s independence has been clouded by his deep professional and financial ties to the oil and gas industry — established during his work heading an MIT research effort that is funded primarily by those industries.
“I worry that as an energy secretary he won’t display the proper preference for independent research, which he didn’t display at MIT,” said Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors and the coauthor of the group’s ethics principles for academic-industry partnerships.
Moniz, who was nominated March 4, has been the director of the MIT Energy Initiative since it was founded in 2006. While the initiative’s website discloses its main sources of funding — including oil conglomerates BP, Shell, and Hess — Moniz and other researchers at the initiative have not provided a full accounting of the compensation they personally receive from energy-related firms, including some of the sponsors of their research.
Moniz, who will have to disclose his financial holdings before his April 9 Senate confirmation hearing, did not respond to requests for comment. The White House declined to address the potential conflicts of interest that might arise as he sets energy policy, but a spokesman defended the president’s nominee. The secretary’s responsibilities include setting research priorities and awarding federal contracts and grants.
“Dr. Moniz’s work at MIT demonstrates his ability to work collaboratively with a wide spectrum of stakeholders on a broad range of energy issues,” said Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman.
But it is Moniz’s multiple roles as a national-caliber academic, head of an industry-supported research initiative at MIT, and paid member of industry corporate boards and advisory panels that has raised questions about potential conflicts of interest.
In a case highlighted this week by a watchdog group, Moniz and several other senior MIT participants were being paid by industry companies as they completed an influential study on the future of natural gas. That study downplayed the potential environmental impacts of “fracking,” the new and controversial process of injecting fluid into the ground to break up shale rocks and extract oil or gas.
Just before the report’s release in 2011, Moniz joined the board of an energy industry consulting firm, ICF International Inc., a sponsor of some of the MIT Energy Initiative’s work; in all he earned more than $150,000 from the Virginia-based firm that year, according to ICF corporate records.
Moniz failed to disclose that financial relationship at the time the study was released, according to the watchdog group, the Public Accountability Initiative, raising concerns about the study’s integrity.
The ICF directorship was just one of a handful of corporate roles for Moniz, who served as an undersecretary of energy during the Clinton administration. From 2005 to 2011 he was a member of the Technology Advisory Council of BP, while the British oil giant was providing $50 million to the MIT Energy Initiative, according to the investigative website ProPublica.
Moniz also received undisclosed compensation from the Electric Power Research Institute, an arm of the electric power industry. He served in a paid position on the strategic advisory council of USEC, a company that provides nuclear fuel for power plants, from 2002 to 2004. USEC is seeking a $2 billion loan guarantee from the government to complete a uranium-enrichment facility in Ohio, a proposal that must be reviewed by the Energy Department.
Those who have worked closely with Moniz and help manage MIT’s wide-ranging partnerships with private industry insist that MIT’s internal guidelines to prevent conflicts of interest are rigorous and were followed.
“I don’t think there was a conflict of interest,” said Robert C. Armstrong, the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering and deputy director of the MIT Energy Initiative who was a member of the 2011 study group. “I think we handled it right.”
Armstrong added: “Being honest brokers in the energy debate is very important to us.”
MIT spokesman Nathaniel W. Nickerson also said that Moniz’s outside activities, like other faculty members, were reported internally each year, were reviewed by MIT’s vice president for research, “and did not raise any concerns.”
But others insist that Moniz’s failure to disclose his role on the board of directors of ICF when the MIT Energy Initiative released its fracking study raises serious questions.
The three-year research effort lent an influential voice at a time when environmental concerns about fracking were growing and government agencies were reviewing how strongly to regulate it for environmental and health safety. Among its findings, the study concluded that “the environmental impacts of shale developments are challenging but manageable.”
“Shale gas is transformative for the economy of the United States,” concluded study cochairman Anthony Meggs, a visiting engineer at the MIT Energy Initiative at the time.
But a month prior to the report’s release, Meggs, who was previously head of technology at BP, was hired by Talisman Energy, an oil and gas exploration company. Meggs did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
“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,” according to a critique of the study and MIT’s approach by the Public Accountability Initiative, a New York-based watchdog that has been critical of fracking.
Kevin Connor, the group’s director, said he believes the study raises questions about Moniz’s “leadership ability and understanding of conflicts of interest.’’
Another leading participant in the study was MIT professor John Deutch, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and former deputy secretary of defense.
Deutch sits on the board of Cheniere Energy, a leading producer of liquefied natural gas, of which he owns about $1.4 million worth of stock, according to the Public Accountability Initiative. And like Moniz, Deutch also serves on the advisory board of NGP Energy Technology Partners, which is managed by Deutch’s son.
Asked about the criticism, Deutch responded by e-mail: “I have no comment.”
A number of MIT officials, however, countered that the institute’s broad relationships with private companies who sponsor research are closely policed to ensure academic independence.
“The company doesn’t have explicit controls over the outcome of the research” said Martin Schmidt, associate provost and a professor of electrical engineering. “The nature of the work we do tends to be data driven.” The final conclusions, he added, “are reached in “as quantitative a way as possible and then [we] draw our conclusions from that data.”
Still, some at MIT believe more scrutiny of possible conflicts of interest would be beneficial — and when questions arise, action taken to disqualify researchers whose professional ties could compromise MIT’s reputation.
“There is some remedy required,” said Larry Susskind, a professor of urban planning who is also vice chairman of the program on negotiation at Harvard Law School. “You don’t just check the box — possible conflict of interest. Somebody who has responsibility has to step in.”
Nelson worries most about what he called “unconscious bias” in an academic organization like the MIT Energy Initiative, which is constantly seeking more funding from its sponsors.
“You won’t get the next round of cash unless they are happy with you,” he said.Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender