Ernest Moniz, the Secretary of Energy under Barack Obama from 2013 through 2017, has joined the board of directors of Southern Company, one of the largest electric utilities – and also one of the largest power-sector carbon polluters – in the country.
Moniz’s new board seat places the physicist in a richly compensated – at least $250,000 per year – governance position at a company that fought tooth and nail against Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which Moniz once lauded for its ambition. Even more, Southern Company has bankrolled scientists that denied the existence of human-driver climate change as recently as 2015.
Moniz, who is best known for his work on the Iran nuclear deal, has been a major proponent of natural gas as a “bridge to a low-carbon future” since before his appointment. In 2011, Moniz was the chair of an industry-funded study group at MIT that published a report, “The Future of Natural Gas,” that promoted fracking and liquefied natural gas exports. With Moniz in his cabinet, Obama pursued an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, embracing fracking as well as issuing the first permits to export liquefied natural gas and lifting the ban on exporting crude oil that had been in place since the Carter administration.
Now, Moniz has taken a well-paid role at an electric company that has also gotten behind natural gas in a big way in recent years.
According to reports from Southern Company, the firm has gone from generating 71% of its electricity from burning coal and 11% from natural gas in 2005 to generating 27% of its electricity from coal and 47% from natural gas today.
“I have long admired Southern Company for its innovative approach to research and development within the clean energy space, and look forward to joining the board,” Moniz said in his statement about his new position.
For all of Moniz’s enthusiasm about the company’s commitment to clean energy, Southern Company is one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas created by burning fossil fuels that contributes to climate change – in the United States power sector. According to a 2017 report from the activist investor group Ceres, Southern Company was behind only Duke Energy and American Electric Power in carbon dioxide pollution, releasing 106.7 million tons of the gas in 2015.
Southern Company was involved in a massive lobbying and legal effort to defeat Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which placed limits on carbon emissions from the electricity sector. The New York Times reported how Southern Company hired the lobbying firm Hunton & Williams to meet privately with Republican state attorneys general – including Scott Pruitt, who is now the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency – to get them to challenge the Clean Power Plan.
Southern Company was also one of the fossil fuel companies that secretly funded Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who spent years denying climate change until his industry ties were revealed by the New York Times.
For his position on the Southern Company board, Moniz stands to be well compensated, better even than his nearly $200,000 base salary at the Department of Energy. In 2017, directors at Southern Company earned a base cash retainer of $110,000 per year as well as $140,000 in stock awards – a quarter-million dollars per year all together.