WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate on Thursday confirmed Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist who has lauded the U.S. natural gas boom, as the next U.S. Energy Secretary.
Mr. Moniz, who was confirmed unanimously, won broad support while some other nominees from President Barack Obama are running into Republican opposition. Gina McCarthy, Mr. Obama's choice to be the next leader of the Environmental Protection Agency, has already seen her nomination vote delayed by Republican opposition.
Ms. McCarthy did get committee approval Thursday by the Senate Environment Committee on a 10-8 party-line vote, but her nomination may need support from Republicans to win approval from the full Senate.
Mr. Moniz has a less contentious track record than Ms. McCarthy, who as the EPA's air-quality chief has presided over the adoption of strict environmental rules. As an academic, Mr. Moniz advocated both advancing renewable energy and moving toward increased use of natural gas as a near-term way to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions linked to climate change.
Senators approved him in a 97-0 vote Thursday. He will take over the Department of Energy as it weighs several applications to export U.S. natural gas.
Mr. Moniz spoke positively about the U.S. natural gas boom at a Senate Energy Committee hearing last month, but he didn't take a firm position on exports. In his previous job as head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Energy Initiative, he led a study that said the U.S. shouldn't erect barriers to exports and that a global gas market would advance U.S. interests.
There are more than a dozen export applications waiting for the Obama administration's approval.
The Department of Energy has limited regulatory power, but Mr. Moniz will be among President Barack Obama's top energy advisers as the administration considers new policies to cut carbon emissions. Mr. Moniz told senators last month his department should focus on supporting "low-carbon options" of energy use, such as small-scale nuclear reactors, renewable energy and technology to capture the carbon emissions from burning coal.
Mr. Moniz previously served in the department under President Bill Clinton, helping to oversee research programs and the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. One of his first tasks this time around will be wrangling with Congress over the department's budget. Despite cuts to many accounts, the president has proposed a huge boost in funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency research. It isn't clear lawmakers will follow along.
Mr. Moniz moved easily through the Senate except for one stumbling block: South Carolina's two Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, objected to the nominee moving forward unless the Department of Energy vowed to push ahead with a plutonium-disposal project in that state. The Obama administration says the project may cost more than anticipated and wants to look at alternatives.
Mr. Moniz declined to take a position on the South Carolina matter prior to his confirmation.
Mr. Graham dropped plans to block a vote on Mr. Moniz after it became clear the nominee had wide support from senators in both parties. Mr. Graham and Mr. Scott have said they will be looking for other opportunities to raise the issue.
Mr. Moniz will be the second consecutive scientist to the lead the research-focused energy department. His predecessor, the physicist Steven Chu, left the department for a post at Stanford University after serving most of President Barack Obama's first term.
Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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