US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz: A Cabinet star is born
How an MIT professor from Fall River got to the center of everything from climate change to nuclear Iran.
HE DOESN’T look like much of a force.
Sitting on the bench of a soccer field in Needham, his long silver hair restrained by a vintage terry cloth headband, he could be mistaken for an extra from The Royal Tenenbaums. He is just 5 feet 7, and with his black athletic socks pulled up high and his baggy blue shorts hanging down low, that leaves only a couple of inches of exposed kneecap between them. Also, he has enough of a paunch to suggest that food has played more than a sustenance role during his 70 years on this planet.
But when Ernest Moniz takes the field, it quickly becomes clear that opponents should write him off at their own peril. His athletic ability is unremarkable, even for this “over-the-hill” soccer league, where the players’ hair comes in one of three varieties: gray, white, and long-departed. Moniz is a threat because of his formidable mix of gusto, guts, and, most of all, smarts.
When an opponent dribbles into scoring position, Moniz charges and slides his whole body into the ball, breaking it free and sending the dribbler tumbling. It’s a perfect defensive move — bold but entirely clean. As a teammate yells, “Good hustle, Ernie!” Moniz springs up and then lends a hand to help his opponent to his feet.
A little while later, when Moniz is back on the bench, his armed government driver close by, I amble over to chat. “You missed my shot on goal,” he tells me by way of a greeting. (He had refused to inform me when and where he would be playing, yet now seems pleased that I have managed to track him down.)
“Did you score?” I ask.
“Nah. I play mostly defense.”
This prompts a heavyset teammate to crack: “That’s how low the expectations are. Even he doesn’t expect to score!”
For much of this year, Moniz’s normally grueling pace as President Obama’s energy secretary has been even more punishing because of his role as the administration’s nuclear science point man for the high-stakes negotiations with Iran. Hearing this ribbing from the bench, I ask Moniz if it’s a relief from all his pressures to just run around with old friends and simply be “Ernie.”
“Not really,” he replies. “They ask me about the Iran negotiations all the time.” Coincidentally, his team includes a couple of players originally from Iran.
As competitive as Moniz is on the field, that’s nothing compared with his drive in Washington, where he has every intention of scoring, and scoring often.
From the moment two years ago when Barack Obama appointed him to lead the Department of Energy, Moniz has been on the move. His immediate predecessor, Nobel laureate Steven Chu, had been viewed as a brilliant scientist but an ineffectual political leader who got swallowed up by Republican criticism of department initiatives, notably the loan guarantees to failed solar energy company Solyndra. Moniz, a nuclear physicist, developed impressive scientific and policy credentials across several decades as an MIT professor and administrator, but he also honed his political chops during a previous tour in Washington, holding two posts in the Clinton administration. Before the start of this tour, he got his old band of aides back to together and gave them one message: “We’re not going to play defense. We’re going to play offense.”
He hasn’t given up the ball since. He has taken a leading role in the president’s climate change action plan, pushing for investment to bring down the costs of renewables while working closely with a trio of fellow Obama appointees from Massachusetts — Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, White House climate adviser Brian Deese, and Secretary of State John Kerry — to bend down the curve on US carbon emissions. At the same time, Moniz has used his mastery of the appropriations process and federal bureaucracy, as well as his longstanding energy industry connections and strong support for shale gas and nuclear power, to quiet even the most recalcitrant Republican critics in Congress.
While Kerry was the public face of the Iran negotiations, Moniz’s nuclear bona fides and bipartisan support made him the most important American at the table, the expert both Republicans and Democrats will look to for assurances that the deal is technically sound.
“He’s one of the best prepared energy secretaries we’ve ever had,” says Bill Richardson, a former US energy secretary and globe-trotting negotiator. “And this Iran breakthrough has established him as the star of this Cabinet.” Richardson, a natural-born politician for whom Moniz served as undersecretary of energy during the Clinton administration, says flatly, “If the Iran deal is approved by the Congress, it will be because of Ernie’s credibility.”
Of course, the more Moniz’s profile has grown, the narrower his margin of error has become. He could find himself being held accountable for forces over which he may have little control. If that worries him, he’s not letting on. It may seem unlikely for a star to be born at age 70. But this man who oozes both confidence and competence has been working his whole life to put himself into exactly this position.
EVERY PIECE WRITTEN about Moniz seems to luxuriate in its attention to his hair. So let’s get this out of the way: It’s a very nice head of shoulder-length hair — full and wavy; marbled with strands of silver, white, and charcoal; curling at the bottom so it cups behind the ears. That hair exploded on social media in January, during the president’s State of the Union address. A tight camera shot of Moniz listening with raised eyebrows from the audience unleashed a flood of tweets, everything from Photoshopped images of Moniz on the Quaker Oats label to cracks like “Do you think Obama feels more pressure during this speech because an actual founding father is in the audience?”
But all the jokes mask some smart political calculus. “At first, I assumed he just liked his hair that way,” says Cheryl LaFleur, a member and former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “Now I think he uses his goofy hairstyle as part of his approach.” She describes Moniz winning over a crowd with the simple quip “I may look like one of the founding fathers, but I’m a man of tomorrow.”
Bill Richardson also sees shrewdness in how his former deputy leverages his retro mane. “Ernie’s become a cult figure because of his hairdo,” he says, “and that has helped make him a star.”
Moniz has stuck with the hairstyle for nearly half a century. It dates to when the strait-laced product of Fall River public schools and Boston College headed to Stanford for grad school, adopting the groovy ways of California. After earning his PhD in theoretical physics in 1971, he went to Paris for a postdoctoral fellowship. That’s where he met Naomi Hoki, a Brazilian scholar of Portuguese literature whose parents had emigrated from Japan to Brazil. They were two students in French class who had Portuguese in common. Even if Moniz couldn’t speak the language, he could understand it, since his grandparents had come to Fall River from the Azores, Portugal’s nine-island archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean.
Sitting with Moniz and his wife a few weeks ago in the kitchen of their Brookline home, I ask what drew her to him back in Paris. A big smile plays over her face. “Oh, he was handsome!”
“Notice the past tense,” Moniz cracks, digging into a slice of sausage pizza.
“Did he have the long hair at the time?” I ask.
“It was longer! It was down to here,” she says, pressing her finger onto his shoulder blade.
“That’s not true!” Moniz interjects, tapping his leg impatiently under the table. “It was long, but not that long.”
“It was just like Meat Loaf,” Naomi says.
“So that’s what attracted you to him,” I say, “that he was handsome?”
“Naomi!” Moniz snaps as the breeze from the air-conditioning unit behind him, on the fan-only setting, causes his hair to sway slightly. “This is on the record!”
I can’t help but laugh at this exchange. “You want that to be off the record,” I ask, “that you were handsome?”
He silently finishes chewing his mouthful of pizza. Then he smiles and slowly says, “Yes.”
The Monizes exhibit the endearing repartee of a long-married couple. When she attempts to put salad on his plate and says, “You should have some,” he rolls his eyes and replies, “Yeah, yeah, later.” She turns to me and complains, “See? He avoids his vegetables.”
In many other matters both big and small, though, he clearly puts a high value on the opinion of his wife, a Harvard-trained retired professor of Portuguese at Georgetown. It’s probably no coincidence that the hairstyle he was sporting when his wife fell in love with him is the one he still sports — and that she’s the one he relies on to cut his locks.
Like Moniz, I grew up in the Fall River area, and I knew many people who shared his Portuguese surname. However, they all pronounced the name “MOAN-is,” while he uses the more exotically inflected “Moan-EEZE.” Later, when I ask him if anyone in his family pronounced it the Fall River way, he freezes for a moment and then says: “They all used to. But my wife is Brazilian, and she told me, ‘You’d better pronounce that right.’ ”
In the wall across from his kitchen table, Moniz had a chalkboard installed, which his two young grandchildren use for doodling and arithmetic. He had rescued the slate from the office of theoretical physics at MIT during a remodel years earlier. (He also had a chalkboard installed in his Washington office, but agreed to remove it after aides complained it was sending the message that he was still in professor mode.)
On a stroll around the MIT campus, Moniz mentions that it had long been the ambition of his father, who never had much of an education and worked in the Firestone tire factory in Fall River, that his son — and only child — attend this particular college. “My father always dreamed ‘MIT — engineering’, ” Moniz says. “I’m not sure he fully understood it, but that was the dream. Unfortunately, he did not live to see that happen.”
His father died in May of 1973. Moniz joined the MIT faculty in the fall of that year, a few months after he and Naomi had married in Paris. “One of the things that I love about a place like MIT is engineering has really been a pathway to upward mobility,” he says. “We always thought, and I still do, that MIT was more of the blue-collar place, compared to, let’s say, some other places up the river.”
Moniz’s conventional academic career changed in 1983, when MIT’s dean of science, John Deutch, tapped him to run the Bates Linear Accelerator Center, a nuclear science lab funded by the US Department of Energy. Moniz’s first reaction to the offer was surprise. “I’m a theoretical physicist,” he reminded the dean. “I’m not an experimental physicist.”
But Deutch wanted a go-getter in the job to keep MIT competitive nationally in the nuclear research space, and Moniz did not disappoint. He held the post for just over eight years or — in the measurement preferred by the precise Moniz — “100 months.” (During his 2013 Senate confirmation hearings, Moniz introduced Naomi as his wife “of 39.83 years,” prompting Senator Al Franken to challenge his math and Moniz to have to admit to a “rounding error.”)
The Bates lab job put Moniz on a management and policy trajectory, and he followed it up with stints as chairman of the physics department at MIT, an associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, and undersecretary at the Energy Department.
When he returned to MIT after Bill Clinton left office, he teamed up again with Deutch, who had been Clinton’s CIA director. They cofounded MIT’s “Future of” study series on energy technology, from nuclear to coal to natural gas to renewables. Moniz was hooked on searching for answers to the world’s toughest energy problems. Rather than return to the classroom, he decided to deepen the search by founding the MIT Energy Initiative. The idea was to use support from the energy industry and others to fund innovative, solutions-oriented research from bright minds across various disciplines. The initiative was a major success, pulling in hundreds of millions in funding and attracting thinkers from outside the energy space. Among those were wunderkind and MacArthur “genius” Erik Demaine, who had joined the MIT faculty at age 20 and made his name through computational origami, using computers and mathematical laws to model the ways in which paper and other materials can be folded. But the fact that the Energy Initiative worked so closely with some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies, including BP, Shell, Chevron, and Saudi Aramco, would later make Moniz and his commitment to tackling climate change suspect in the eyes of some environmentalists.
THE HALLWAY LEADING TO Moniz’s office at the Department of Energy is lined with framed action photos of him in various settings. Here he is briefing President Obama aboard Air Force One. There he is throwing out the first pitch at Fenway. Here he is again with Obama, this time touring a plant in hard hats.
The photo that is most telling, though, is the one in which Moniz is standing with a pair of unfamiliar faces in a setting that is unimportant. But the look on his face is priceless, conveying the thought bubble “You’re not going to waste my time with this, are you?” You can imagine him with that same look during his classroom days at MIT when one of his students asked a silly question.
Like many brilliant academics, Moniz does not suffer fools gladly. But what spares him from coming across as arrogant — and enhances his political effectiveness — is the impulse for self-effacement that is threaded through his self-assured personality. There are only a few traces left of the Fall River accent he once had (the word “us” continues to be rendered as “uz”), but there are enough regular-guy touches from his working-class upbringing to sustain his likability and authenticity, no matter how much time he has spent with diplomats in Geneva and Vienna. Those skills come in handy as Moniz works to enlist the support of the department’s nearly 14,000 employees, including the clock-punching bureaucrats who might look at him and think You’re the fourth secretary of energy since I’ve been here, and I’ll see at least two more before I pull my retirement papers.
During one packed Monday in June that I spend with him in Washington, examples of both self-assured and self-effacing Moniz are abundant.
In a conference room across the hall from that photo gallery, Moniz welcomes the foreign minister of South Korea for the official signing of an updated nuclear accord between the allies. There is a hush in the room as Moniz and the foreign minister sit side by side to sign identical copies of the bound agreement, surrounded by a full complement of protocol officers, diplomats, and remarkably respectful media from Korea.
When Moniz is unclear about which document he is supposed to sign, instead of trying to paper over his confusion, he calls out, “Is this mine?”
Nervous laughter cascades through the room.
A few minutes later, Moniz blurts out another question: “Does this go underneath?”
A little while later, he heads down the hall, to the SCIF, the Secure Compartmented Information Facility, a keypad-entry, black-doored, windowless room where he goes to read classified papers that arrive in color-coded satchels.
Meanwhile, I use the downtime to meet with his close adviser, Melanie Kenderdine. She worked with Moniz at Energy during the Clinton administration, eventually followed him to MIT to help run the Energy Initiative there, and then returned with him to Washington to run his policy shop and be the point person for his passion project, the Quadrennial Energy Review. That massive undertaking is the Moniz team’s plan for modernizing “the nation’s energy infrastructure to promote economic competitiveness, energy security, and environmental responsibility.”
Moniz had joked to me that the most satisfying moment of his tenure was getting in a plug for the Energy Review during his recent appearance with Jon Stewart. But when I mention that to Kenderdine, she points out that the plug didn’t make it into the actual broadcast version of The Daily Show, only the “web-extra” full interview. She and Moniz share the hard-to-please trait.
Kenderdine stresses that while most people think the Department of Energy focuses on energy technology, that’s actually only a relatively small part of its mission. More than 60 percent of its budget involves national security. That includes the nuclear weapons program, the nuclear waste cleanup program, the nuclear nonproliferation program, and the naval propulsion program, which powers submarines and aircraft carriers. There’s also the array of 17 labs across the country that help incubate lots of basic science research. Moniz loves to note that it was the Department of Energy, not the National Institutes of Health, that midwifed the Human Genome Project.
With the strange-bedfellows character of this department, it’s no wonder it has proved to be such a magnet for trouble in previous administrations. Yet Moniz’s talents dovetail particularly well with the diverse demands of the job.
“What Ernie brings to the table, besides being a good manager,” Kenderdine tells me, “is domain knowledge in all of those areas.”
Just as she is finishing that sentence, Moniz barges into her office, brandishing a stack of papers and asking about a missing paragraph.
He flashes a look of surprise when he spots me in Kenderdine’s office and then tells me, “What she just said is BS.”
“All the wonderful things I said about you being a great manager?” Kenderdine says with a chuckle.
As she is for most of his policy talks, Kenderdine had been at Moniz’s side earlier in the day, when he had addressed 900 energy conference attendees packed into a ballroom at the Renaissance Washington Hotel. Moniz had delivered what sounded to me like a fairly boilerplate talk about the energy revolution that he says has already begun. But when I sat in on a news conference he gave for energy-trade press members immediately after the talk, I was struck by how excited they all were. They fixated on a mild warning he had made to members of Congress interested in selling off some of the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve, saying it could be a “slippery slope.” The excitement his parenthetical sparked in the trade press, reminiscent of the way Alan Greenspan’s cryptic comments once moved the markets, was a reminder of Moniz’s outsize stature in the energy field.
Now standing in Kenderdine’s office, Moniz tells her he’d like her to find the missing paragraph before he leaves for meetings at the White House. He’s heading there to brief two of Obama’s senior advisers, John Holdren (science and technology) and Brian Deese (climate). Deese grew up in Belmont, and Holdren logged lots of time in Cambridge, teaching at the Kennedy School, as well as in Falmouth, running the Woods Hole Research Center. (Obama’s second-term team must rival the Kennedy administration for the degree of Massachusetts influence.)
In no time, Kenderdine is sprinting down the hall in heels, handing Moniz a fresh printout of the complete report, telling me, “This happens all the time!” I’m then hustled with Moniz and his team into an armored SUV bound for the White House.
As the driver wearing the requisite dark shades stops the vehicle at an initial checkpoint to get onto the White House grounds, a security team approaches with under-the-car mirrors and bomb-sniffing dogs. I casually mention to Moniz something surprising I had learned in my research: He hadn’t graduated first in his class at Durfee, Fall River’s large public high school, but rather third. “I’m wondering who were the two people smarter than you in high school?” I say.
Moniz seems taken aback. “Who told you that?”
“Is it not accurate?”
“Number three is accurate,” he says. “But I graduated number one at BC.”
By now the SUV has hit a second checkpoint, and I’m not on the security list to get past that gate. Moniz gives me my orders: “You’ve got to get out.”
A FACILITIES ENGINEER for the Department of Energy is giving me a tour of the complex roof. The department’s headquarters consists of a clump of sad, tired Brutalist buildings named after the nation’s first secretary of defense, James Forrestal, who battled depression before his untimely death. But the view atop the complex is gorgeous, with the elegant Smithsonian Institution across the street and the regal Capitol off in the distance.
My facilities tour guide, Eric Haukdal, hasn’t brought me up here to gaze out at that view, though, but rather to look down at my feet. Concrete foam roof panels were replaced years earlier with 891 solar panels, emphasizing the department’s commitment to leading by example with renewable energy.
The department has managed to cut its energy costs at the complex by about 30 percent over the last decade or so. But when I ask Haukdal how big a piece of that reduction can be attributed to this rooftop solar array, he admits it’s quite small — around 1.5 percent. The biggest drivers for cutting the energy department’s energy bill? Improvements to the heating and ventilation system.
That’s consistent with the wider green movement, where attention is lavished on renewables like wind and solar power generation, but where decidedly unsexy efforts to improve efficiency with HVAC systems and light bulbs are more often the mules that deliver big improvements.
This is something the pragmatic Moniz deeply understands. Back in his unpretentious Brookline home, sitting in a wooden kitchen chair that has left a trail of scuff marks on the wall behind it, Moniz stresses that the trick with getting widespread adoption of new green technologies is to keep driving down the price. Pointing to the lights in his kitchen, he says LEDs have finally reached 10 percent nationally — and growing — because the price point has been lowered to $5, which makes it easier for people to stomach doing the right thing. “Then you can legislate what people are already doing,” he says.
Moniz’s formula for reducing carbon emissions relies on the use of improved technology and tougher standards to lower consumption and cost while also increasing efficiency. His chief of staff, Massachusetts native Kevin Knobloch, came to his job after having served as president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge-based nonprofit. He embraced the opportunity to work for a science-focused energy secretary who would be “very forceful” in talking about the reality of climate change and its human cause and would be aggressive in tackling it. Knobloch points out that, on Moniz’s watch, the department has significantly accelerated the pace of pumping out new, tougher efficiency standards for appliances, heating and cooling systems, electronics, and lighting — 10 last year, with plans for 12 more this year and another 14 in 2016. “What we are doing,” Knobloch says, “is systematically looking at every corner of the economy to improve energy efficiency.”
Moniz has been a strong advocate for Obama’s “all of the above” strategy, pushing nuclear, renewables, and cleaner fossil fuels in the belief that there is not just one road to a low-carbon Rome. But he has courted criticism for his longstanding relationships with fossil fuel powerhouses and, in particular, his embrace of the hydraulic “fracking” of shale gas as a “bridge fuel” for the decade it will take until the transmission and storage of renewable sources becomes more reliable and affordable.
During my walk with him around the MIT campus, when we pop in to his former office at the Energy Initiative, I’m struck by signs in the lobby featuring prominent logos for fossil fuel behemoths BP and Shell. So I ask Moniz if, back when he was setting up the MIT center, he had anticipated how this close association with industry would invite criticism from environmentalists.
“You mean the charge of being a ‘frackademic’?” he says with a dismissive chuckle.
A few strident environmentalist critics tossed around that label, accusing Moniz and deputy Melanie Kenderdine of cozying up to the natural gas industry. Apart from her work in government and at MIT, Kenderdine held a key leadership position for the natural gas industry research lab and tells me she was one of only a handful of people in the policy world who realized early on what a game-changer the natural gas trapped in shale formations would be for US energy production.
But more substantive criticism has come from people like Bob Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell. He praises Moniz for his political acumen and his refusal to entertain nonsense from the climate change denier crowd. “But his solution to climate change relies way, way too heavily on natural gas,” Howarth says. Although natural gas is clearly cleaner than coal, Howarth points to a growing body of evidence suggesting that emissions of the greenhouse gas methane — a significant byproduct of fracking — eliminate any climate change benefits associated with the move to this alternate fossil fuel. “I think getting rid of coal is a good idea, but encouraging natural gas as a prime replacement is a tragic error.”
Yet Sue Tierney, one of the nation’s leading energy analysts who enjoys wide respect in the environmental community, says “it’s hard to find two people more committed to tackling climate change than Ernie Moniz and Melanie Kenderdine.” Because of the country’s demands for cheap energy, Tierney says, and the challenges of getting renewables genuinely ready for prime time, a reduction in shale gas would likely be replaced by an increase in coal.
So in the support that Moniz and his team have for natural gas as a bridge fuel, she sees a determination to proceed with what’s both right and doable.
Moniz hits the same note to me in explaining his interest in forging alliances with energy companies during his time at MIT. “This is a trillion-dollar-a-year industry,” he says. “If you want to affect energy, you’ve got to work with them.”
SUE TIERNEY, WHO SERVED in the Energy Department under Bill Clinton and helped guide it during Barack Obama’s transition into office, calls Moniz one of the best secretaries in its history, a guy with the know-how and resolve to make the most of his limited time in the chair. “Ernie is the whole package,” she says. “And with Iran, Ernie couldn’t have entered at a better time.” In addition to impressive command of technical nuclear matters, he and his Iranian counterpart, atomic energy minister Ali Akbar Salehi, have MIT in common, since Salehi trained there.
In a mid-July phone interview, as the announcement of the Iran deal is still ricocheting around the world, Moniz admits his role has already shifted, from nuclear negotiator to verifier and salesman of the agreement to a skeptical Congress. The Obama administration is relying on Moniz to give classified briefings meant to reassure nervous lawmakers that the deal will actually prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.
Moniz tells me that one of the underappreciated achievements of the negotiations with Iran is that the United States was able to hold together a coalition that includes China and, most remarkably, Russia. He finds it naive for critics to expect that a better deal with Iran is attainable — or that the tenuous international coalition would remain unified on Iranian sanctions if Congress kills the agreement. “If we were now to become the dog in the manger on this, we would be almost certainly in a terrible position,” Moniz says. “As the deal gets undercut, Iran would be free to build its nuclear program as it wished. And it would be extremely hard to believe the sanctions would hold.” Also lost, he says, would be the opportunity to use this diplomatic coalition to tackle other dangerous but seemingly unsolvable standoffs around the globe. If, at the end of its review period, Congress votes down the deal, Moniz says, “I personally think it would be catastrophic.”
“Are you worried that will happen?” I ask.
“Do I harbor a fear that it might?” he asks. “Yeah. But I think it will go through. The deal is too good, and the alternatives are too bad.”
Still, he’s taking no chances. Speaking by phone while standing in the terminal at Reagan International Airport, Moniz interrupts our conversation when he spots Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, who is leaning in favor of the deal but not yet firmly in the “yes” column. “I’m going to say hello to Senator Blumenthal,” he says, leaving me mid-sentence.
Moniz remains close with his former boss at MIT, John Deutch. Even though Deutch works for Moniz now, as chairman of the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board, old habits die hard. “He’s always been my direct report,” the former CIA director and MIT dean quips. “He absolutely still is.” Deutch gives his former mentee an A+ for his performance so far in shaping a strong vision for his somewhat unwieldy department and getting buy-in from staff and stakeholders alike. “As to the question of how well this will be implemented throughout the system,” he says, “it’s too early to tell.”
He has deep confidence in Moniz but says that the more responsibilities he is given, the harder it will be to ensure his vision becomes reality. “His success has been a problem,” Deutch says. “More and more gets heaped on his shoulders.”
Still, Moniz’s wife tells me she has no worry those shoulders will buckle under the pressure. “My husband has never taken a vacation or a sabbatical in forty-three years of marriage.”
“Forty-two!” Moniz interjects.
“Nineteen seventy-three to twenty fifteen,” he says. “Forty-two years.”
After 504 months of continuous work, he is going to keep sprinting down the field — at least for the next 547 days.