Former Obama Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz (Photo: OLF/Kilian Munch via Norsk olje og gass, Flickr)
President-elect Joe Biden has signalled his intent to make climate change a signature effort of his upcoming administration. However, while Biden has been lauded for this, concerns remain about the degree to which he is willing to challenge the power of the fossil fuel industry.
Environmental activists’ concerns about Biden’s approach to climate change are in many ways personified in one figure: Ernest Moniz.
Moniz was Secretary of Energy in Obama’s administration from 2013 through 2017 and played a critical role in generating support for fracked gas as a “bridge fuel” and in launching the liquefied natural gas export regime that proliferated under Obama. He is currently a director of Southern Company, the second-highest carbon-polluting energy utility in the United States.
During the 2020 presidential election, Moniz was reported to be an informal advisor to Biden’s campaign. Biden’s initial climate plan received an “F-” grade from the youth-led Sunrise Movement in 2019, though he was pushed by activists to call for more significant climate action later in his campaign. Still, in the final weeks before election day, Biden unequivocally rejected calls to ban fracking, and declared support for investing in technologies to capture and store carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels as a key component of his agenda.
Now Moniz has been widely speculated to be a top contender to again lead the Department of Energy, which oversees the nation’s energy policies and nuclear materials.
Last week, Biden announced the “agency review teams” that will guide his transition into the White House. These teams play important and influential roles because they shape the contours of executive policy as well as critical staffing decisions. As Politico notes, “[m]embers of review teams often end up taking jobs at the agencies they are assigned to and will influence who the Biden administration eventually hires.”
Several members of President-elect Biden’s agency review team for the Department of Energy (DOE) have extensive ties to Moniz – in particular, the team lead, Arun Majumdar, who is also being discussed as a top candidate for DOE Secretary. Majumdar and four other DOE transition team members – a full quarter of the entire team – have professional connections to Moniz through the Department of Energy, through Moniz’s think tank, or through positions at private equity and venture capital firms. All this raises concerns about Moniz’s influence over the policy direction and staffing decisions within Biden’s DOE, and suggests that – even if Biden rejects Moniz himself – Moniz’s network could play a critical role in setting energy policy in the Biden administration.
“Nightmare” Biden climate advisor Ernest Moniz
Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has widely been discussed as a top candidate to lead the Department of Energy under Joe Biden. Moniz has close ties to the fossil fuel industry, and has been described by climate journalist Kate Aronoff as “giving nightmares” to environmental activists seeking major government intervention to halt climate change and transition off of fossil fuels.
In the early 2010’s, Moniz helped manufacture consensus around the controversial use of fracking to produce natural gas and laid out the justification used to begin permitting the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Moniz was the lead author of a report published by the MIT Energy Initiative that endorsed fracked gas as a “bridge fuel” and promoted LNG exports as a means to attain US geopolitical goals.
As we covered in our 2013 analysis of that report, the MIT study was funded by the oil and gas industry and the study team – Moniz included – was rife with industry conflicts of interest. The MIT Energy Initiative has received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from oil companies like BP, Chevron, and Eni, among other donors. Moniz’s natural gas report was funded in part by the American Clean Skies Foundation, a non-profit established by the fracking company Chesapeake Energy to promote natural gas as environmentally friendly. While working on the study, Moniz himself was advising the private equity firm NGP Energy Technology Partners. Another study group member, former CIA director John Detuch, also advised NGP Energy Technology Partners (which was run by his son Philip). In a clearer conflict of interest, Deutch was a board member at the LNG company Cheniere Energy while working on the MIT study. In January 2011, six months before the MIT report was released, Cheniere filed for a permit to begin exporting LNG, and at the time of the report’s release the firm was the only company to have such a permit approved.
As Secretary of Energy, Moniz presided over an expansion of US fracking and large expansion in exports, both of natural gas and of crude oil after Obama lifted the ban on those exports. Just before Moniz joined the Department of Energy, in March 2013, Cheniere requested to increase its export capacity. Heather Zichal, an Obama climate advisor (and an advisor to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign), left public office in November 2013 and joined the Cheniere board of directors in 2014. In 2016, Cheniere launched its first shipment of liquefied natural gas from its Sabine Pass facility.
After Donald Trump took office, Moniz joined the board of a major carbon polluter, the gas and electric utility Southern Company. Moniz also launched two projects – the for-profit consulting firm EJM Associates and the non-profit think tank Energy Futures Initiative – intended to shape the policy debate around energy issues. Since then, Moniz has rejected the popular Green New Deal framework for a mass social mobilization to combat climate change and economic inequity, introducing an opposing counter-proposal he has called the “Green Real Deal” (which he announced at the fossil fuel-backed US Chamber of Commerce lobbying group). Moniz has also backed industry-friendly climate interventions like carbon taxes and carbon capture (also called “carbon removal” or “negative emissions technologies”) in the time since he left public office.
Now, as Moniz has become the face of the possible centrist, market-based approach to climate feared by climate activists, President-elect Joe Biden has signalled his embrace of Moniz’s policy priorities even if Moniz himself does not land a cabinet position.
In addition to embracing fracking on the campaign trail, Biden has made investment in negative emissions technologies, a major Moniz talking point, a priority of his climate transition plan. On November 17, Biden named Cedric Richmond, an ally of the fossil fuel industry, to a White House position “as a liaison with the business community and climate change activists.”
Further, the agency review team Biden appointed to guide his transition into the White House draws from the same policy planning networks that Moniz travels in, and several members have direct ties to Moniz and his companies.
Arun Majumdar and Moniz
Arun Majumdar is in the influential position of team lead of the DOE agency review team, and he has been reported as a candidate for Energy Secretary for the incoming Biden administration. Majumdar has worked at the intersection of the energy industry, federal energy regulation, and academic think tanks throughout his career, during which he’s developed close ties to Ernest Moniz. For example:
- Majumdar was Vice Chair of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board from 2014 to 2017, meaning he served as a top advisor to Ernest Moniz during most of Moniz’s tenure as Energy Secretary. The Advisory Board “provides advice and recommendations to the Secretary of Energy on the Administration’s energy policies” and other policies, activities, and operations.
- Majumdar is currently the co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, which co-released an October 2020 report with Moniz’s Energy Futures Initiative that argues for the pairing of natural gas-burning combined cycle power plants with carbon capture and storage in California – as opposed to stopping fossil fuel extraction and consumption altogether – to help the state meet its emissions reductions goals. Moniz has also spoken at different events at Majumdar’s Precourt Institute.
- Majumdar has served on the advisory board of Lime Rock New Energy, a “new energy”-focused private equity firm. The chair of Lime Rock New Energy’s advisory board is Ernest Moniz. (Lime Rock New Energy’s page does not currently list Majumdar as an advisor, but his Lime Rock profile page is archived as recently as September 18, 2020 at archive.org. Bloomberg reports that Majumdar “has been told to resign from all boards and organizations associated with energy to eliminate perceived conflicts of interest.”)
Majumdar played different roles with the Energy Department during nearly the entire two-term administration of President Obama, which oversaw a vast expansion of fracking and a green-lighting of LNG and crude oil exports. As mentioned, he served as Vice Chair of the Advisory Board to Energy Secretary Moniz from 2014 to 2017. Majumdar also held the position of Acting Undersecretary for Energy from March 2011 to June 2012 under Steven Chu, who served as Energy Secretary from January 2009 to April 2013. In this role, Chu and the Energy Department oversaw a major expansion of fracking production under Obama.
(In 2013, Chu was the keynote speaker at an American Natural Gas Alliance conference, where he claimed that fracking could be done safely. Notably, the idea that the environmental risks of fracking are “challenging but manageable” was a key talking point from Moniz’s influential report on natural gas at MIT. Chu is now a professor at Stanford University, where Majumdar also is based.)
Prior to serving as Acting Undersecretary for Energy under Chu, Majumdar was a Founding Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). The ARPA-E “advances high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment,” according to its website. Majumdar was nominated to this position in October 2009 by President Obama and served until June 2012.
Majumdar’s further ties to the Moniz network
Majumdar is the co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University, whose founding donor, Jay Precourt, has held executive positions at oil and gas corporations like Hamilton Oil, Tejas Gas, and Shell Oil, and has served on the boards Apache Corporation, Halliburton, and other fossil fuel companies. The Institute’s advisory council includes oil and gas investors like Energy Capital Partners, as well as George Schultz, the co-architect of a fossil fuel industry-backed carbon tax plan, though it also includes “clean energy” advocates like Tom Steyer and clean energy investors.
As co-director of the Precourt Institute at Stanford, and with his close ties to the Obama/Moniz DOE, Majumdar is centrally located amidst a network of Moniz-tied individuals who rotate within the same regulatory-industry-think tank circuit. For example:
- Franklin “Lynn” Orr was the founding director of the Precourt Institute, serving as head from 2009 to 2013. He went on to serve under Moniz at the DOE from December 2014 to January 2017 as the Under Secretary for Science and Energy. Orr is also an advisor to Moniz’s Energy Futures Initiative.
- Dan Reicher is a distinguished associate at Moniz’s Energy Futures Initiative and a former member of the Precourt Institute’s Energy Advisory Council. He is also a Venture Partner at RIDGE-LANE Limited Partners, a venture capital firm co-founded by former fracking lobbyist Tom Ridge, where Arun Majumdar is currently a senior advisor on sustainability (as we show below, another member of the Biden energy transition team, John MacWilliams, is also a RIDGE-LANE Venture Partner). Reicher was Google’s Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives from January 2007 to November 2010 (Majumdar would join Google in 2012 – see below). Reicher was part of Barack Obama’s transition team and also served as Energy Department’s chief of staff under Bill Clinton. He is currently a senior research scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for Environment.
Majumdar has also used his expertise and government experience to profit in the corporate world. Between 2012 and 2014 served as Google’s Vice President of Energy. According to his Stanford faculty page, he serves as an advisor to Envision Energy, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, First Light Fusion, the New Energy Group of Royal Dutch Shell, Lime Rock New Energy, Autogrid, and Clearvision Ventures (as mentioned above, Bloomberg reports that Majumdar was told to resign from all related boards and organizations).
Majumdar’s position on Lime Rock New Energy’s Advisory Board is worth noting. As mentioned, the chair of Lime Rock New Energy’s advisory board is none other than Ernest Moniz (he joined the board in 2019). Moreover, Lime Rock New Energy is affiliated with Lime Rock Partners, which has nearly two dozen oil and gas companies in its portfolio. As we’ve reported, Lime Rock Partners, through its portfolio company CrownRock, finances the business operations of Tim Dunn, a major donor in Texas politics who is the driving force behind the controversial, hard right group Empower Texans.
Furthermore, Mark McCall, currently a Managing Director of Lime Rock New Energy, temporarily left Lime Rock to serve under Moniz as the Executive Director of the DOE’s Loan Programs Office from 2015 to 2017. As McCall’s Lime Rock bio states, “In that capacity, he reported directly to the Secretary of Energy and was responsible for a $30 billion portfolio of existing clean energy technology investments” and for originating loans to support the “commercialization of innovative technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the automotive, renewables, nuclear, and hydrocarbons industries.”
All this means that McCall, Moniz, and Majumdar all joined or re-joined Lime Rock in some capacity after leaving their roles with the Moniz-era DOE – in effect, a joint revolving door journey from the Energy Department into the same energy-focused private equity firm.
Majumdar also advises Breakthrough Energy, a group of super-wealthy investors started in 2015 by Bill Gates that also includes Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, David Rubenstein, and Jack Ma, among others. Breakthrough Energy has been a partner of Moniz’s Energy Futures Initiative. While the group “supports the innovations that will lead the world to net-zero emissions,” some of its investors, like Bloomberg and Rubenstein, are invested in fracking and other oil and gas infrastructure.
Majumdar has also served on the board of directors of the Electric Power Research Institute. The EPRI board is filled with executives from major utilities, such as Southern Company and Duke Energy, whose power generation is rooted in fossil fuels, and its advisory board is chaired by the President and CEO of Altus Midstream, a pipeline company that transports fossil fuels from the Permian Basin to the Gulf Coast. (Majumdar just resigned from the EPRI board to avoid conflicts of interests).
In addition to Moniz’s EFI co-sponsoring the recent report with Majumdar’s Precourt Institute, Moniz has had speaking engagements at the Institute over the past few years. In June 2020, for example, the Precourt Institute hosted Moniz for an interview, which Majumdar helped conduct.
Other Moniz-Tied DOE Transition Team Members
(i) Jonathan Elkind
Jonathan Elkind is currently a Distinguished Associate at Moniz’s think tank, the Energy Futures Initiative. Elkind worked under Moniz and Chu at the DOE from 2009 to 2017. At the DOE, he helped “coordinate energy policy in the Obama Administration” and led “climate and energy programs with key global partners,” according to his Columbia University bio. He finished his DOE service as the Department’s assistant secretary for the Office of International Affairs.
The Energy Futures Initiative is advised by a board chaired by former BP CEO Lord John Brown Madingley and includes former CIA director and Cheniere Energy board member John Deutch, and J. Todd Mitchell, whose family fortune comes from the fracking company Devon Energy.
Elkind is also a Senior Research Scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) at Columbia University, which has received funding from ExxonMobil in the past and whose advisory board includes ConocoPhillips chief operating officer Matt Fox and numerous energy investors from large banks. The founding director of CGEP, Jason Bordoff, is a former Obama administration national security official who co-authored a paper arguing for using US LNG exports to combat Russian hegemony in European energy markets.
(ii) John MacWilliams
John MacWilliams served as Associate Deputy Secretary and Chief Risk Officer of the Department of Energy under Moniz. In April 2020, MacWilliams was named an Operating Partner of Apollo Global Management, one of the world’s biggest private equity firms. Before joining the DOE, he worked at several financial firms, and served as Co-Head and Partner of Beacon Group Energy Investment Funds, a portfolio of 30 energy companies that included oil and gas, coal mining, petrochemicals, and pipelines.
As mentioned above, MacWilliams is also a Venture Partner at RIDGE-LANE Limited Partners, where Arun Majumdar is a Senior Advisor, and a Senior Fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, where Jonathan Elkind is a Senior Research Scholar.
(iii) Dan Arvizu
Dan Arvizu was the director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a government-owned research laboratory funded by the Department of Energy, from 2005 until 2015, when he retired during Moniz’s term as Secretary of Energy. According to the press release announcing his departure from NREL, Arvizu was also a member of Moniz’s Energy Policy Council.
Arvizu is named as an external advisory board member of Stanford University’s oil- and gas-funded Global Climate & Energy Project and he is also an advisor to Majumdar’s Precourt Institute for Energy.
Arvizu is also the Chair of R&D at RIDGE-LANE Limited Partners, the venture capital firm where Arun Majumdar is an advisor and John MacWilliams is a venture partner.
(iv) Dave Turk
David Turk is the Deputy Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, an international energy policy forum made up of nearly three dozen countries. From 2014 to 2016, Turk served under Ernest Moniz as Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Climate and Technology in the Department of Energy.
Dozens of climate and environmental justice organizations have formally asked President-elect Biden “to commit to ensuring Ernest Moniz holds no public or private role, whether formal or informal, in your transition team, cabinet, or administration.” Whether or not Moniz himself becomes the next US Energy Secretary, the staffing of Biden’s energy transition team sets up his network to have significant sway over the Department of Energy’s policy orientation and personnel make-up under the upcoming Biden administration. Indeed, reflections of Moniz’s influence can already be seen in aspects of Biden’s climate agenda, such as Biden’s steadfast support of fracking and prioritization of carbon capture technologies.
As climate activists continue to pressure Biden to reject Moniz individually, it is critical to also pay attention to the pro-fossil fuel corporate and policy planning networks to which Moniz and his colleagues belong and which are also seeking to shape US energy policy to ensure continued dominance and profit for private corporate interests.