Monday, July 27, 2015

Which Side Are You On, Secretary Muniz?

I was taken with the Boston Globe Magazine's profile yesterday of US Energy Secretary Ernie Muniz. I confess I hadn't paid much attention when he was appointed, beyond the parochial pride that another Massachusetts resident was taking the lead in environmental affairs. But here he was, fresh from his success as John Kerry's co-negotiator of the Iran deal, a heavy-hitting physicist but also a regular guy who plays senior league soccer with his pals, wears his gray hair shoulder-length, and stands up to climate change deniers wherever he finds them. I found all this reassuring, because Muniz is captain of the US team that will play such a major role in the Paris conference and various other international conversations about climate.

Curious, I did a little poking around, and saw that there is a more critical side of the story. Muniz is very much a champion of the nuclear power industry, and also a supporter of fracking, and natural gas expansion in general--the "bridge to renewables" theory that is Obama's standing policy. But on the whole Muniz represents the shift in Obama's second term toward a healthier attention to climate issues, just in time for the Paris milestone. Then I looked a little further, and found an article published by my friend Justin Elliott on the ProPublica site two years ago, at the time of Muniz's confirmation, and I begin to see just how murky the record can be, even for a 'good guy' like Muniz.

What Elliott and others document is the tight connections binding a player like Muniz to big energy interests and his own self-interest. At MIT Muniz was in the position of lauding BP and its "diversified portfolio" of energy initiatives at the moment when BP was pledging $50 million to the MIT Energy Initiative Muniz directed--and a few months before BP's offshore drilling devastated huge tracts of the Gulf of Mexico. Similarly Muniz's institute published a report favorable to fracking, without noting that Muniz served on the board of ICF International, a major fracking company, making $150,000 per year beyond his MIT salary while promoting the company's interests in his academic--'frackademic,' as they say--role. (Details in this transcript from "Democracy Now.") Muniz has similar corporate board connections to the uranium industry, while advocating strongly for nuclear power.

So what to make of Secretary Muniz and his business entanglements? There is nothing exactly new here, and indeed President Obama pointed to Muniz's strong ties to "energy companies" as evidence of his qualifications as secretary. Muniz's attachments, as Elliott notes, are very much a reflection of Obama's "all of the above" energy policy, which should be understood as an endorsement of all existing energy interests, including the most environmentally questionable.

Is this best we can hope for? A highly competent, scientifically astute Secretary of Energy who feathers his own nest while defending the corporate interests who fund him? It is easy to imagine a much worse energy department--just look at the 8 Bush-lite years. But somehow the complacency of "all of the above," with its corporate partnerships and don't-rock-the-boat timetables, feels weirdly anachronistic in the face of a ticking doomsday clock. Maybe the Secretary of Energy shouldn't be such a regular guy after all.

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