President Obama on Monday turned to Massachusetts for his nominees to the nation’s top energy and environmental posts, tapping MIT physicist Ernest J. Moniz to lead the Department of Energy, and Boston-area native and former state environmental official Gina McCarthy as the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“These two over here they’re going to be making sure we’re investing in American clean energy,’’ Obama said at the White House, “that we’re doing everything we can do to combat climate change.’’
The president’s choices highlight the central role that Massachusetts has played in shaping the national outlook on the environment during a “burst of energy innovation’’ in the last several years, said Salo Zelermyer, an attorney at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP and former senior counsel for the Department of Energy. Massachusetts, which boasts one of the nation’s leading alternative energy sectors, has been at the forefront of policies to encourage non-polluting energy sources, such as wind and solar, combat climate changes, and protect the environment.
“It makes sense,’’ Zelermyer said, “that highly placed officials or intellectuals from that area would be looked at because they tend to share the president’s policy goals.’’
Moniz, a member of MIT’s faculty since 1973, would succeed outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Moniz, who served as undersecretary of Energy under President Bill Clinton, now serves on Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology. He directs MIT’s Energy Initiative, which works across the school’s disciplines and with industry to research and address energy issues.
“It’s an absolutely inspired choice, [because Moniz is] a person who has deep experience in energy over a wide range of areas, all the way from solar and energy efficiency to nuclear power,’’ said John Deutch, an MIT colleague and a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. “He has studied energy problems from an academic and a professional perspective and he is deeply committed to helping the world avoid climate change.’’
McCarthy, the EPA’s assistant administrator for the office of air and radiation, would succeed her boss, Lisa Jackson. She is perhaps best known in Massachusetts for her work in crafting tough air pollution rules that cleaned up the “Filthy Five’’ — the state’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants.
McCarthy, who grew up in Canton, is a graduate of University of Massachusetts at Boston and Tufts University. She is a career public servant who worked in the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs under four Massachusetts governors, holding a top environmental policy post under Mitt Romney.
“You listen to Gina’s accent and she is Massachusetts through and through, but she has negotiated an incredible array of complex environmental agencies and issues,’’ said Susan Tierney, a managing principal at Analysis Group and a former assistant secretary for policy at the US Energy Department. “She knows how to integrate scientific information into policy settings.’’
If confirmed, Moniz and McCarthy will be charged with making good on Obama’s pledge in his inaugural address to “respond to the threat of climate change.’’ That, environmentalists and others say, would mean tackling carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants and continuing to tighten vehicle emissions and efficiency standards.
They would also face decisions of whether to export domestically-produced supplies of natural gas and how to make the oil and gas drilling technique, known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, safer as energy companies seek to unlock reserves in shale deposits.
Moniz, who supports increased natural gas production and nuclear power as part of the nation’s energy mixed, has already come under fire from environmentalists and other critics. Some say that his background, like Chu’s, is too academic. Chu, his critics say, never became comfortable navigating Washington politics, and focused too much on research.
Environmentalists also worry that Moniz’s ties to the oil and gas industry, which provides financial support for MIT Energy Institute, could lead to a renewed emphasis on fossil fuels and undercut support for clean energy technologies.
“We urge Mr. Moniz to prioritize clean, renewable energy as climate solutions over destructive fossil fuels and boondoggles like liquefied natural gas exports,’’ Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement. “We urge him to leave dangerous nuclear energy and toxic fracking behind while focusing on safe, clean energy sources like wind and solar.’’
Supporters, however, say Moniz is a brilliant intellectual who inspires colleagues with his level-headed and practical approach to energy issues.
Fomer MIT president Susan Hockfield said Moniz’s academic experience, government service, and familiarity with the energy industry make him “uniquely qualified’’ to lead the US Department of Energy. In particular, Hockfield said, Moniz’s industry connections will help the energy department translate its ideas and policies to the marketplace.
His deep understanding of nuclear issues will allow him to deal with some of the department’s more challenging responsibilities, such like overseeing the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.
“As we have all seen, the Department of Energy is complex. It oversees a number of different kinds of operations, but Ernie has experience in many of the areas,’’ Hockfield said. “One of the talents that Ernie will bring to the DOE is his ability to get input from a wide variety of people from many different domains.’’
McCarthy started her career in 1980 as a public health official in her hometown of Canton, and later in neighboring Stoughton. Peers say that background has driven her environmental work, which has focused on protecting public health, such as tightening regulations on soot emissions in order to improve air-quality.
A no-nonsense, consensus-building negotiator, those that have sat across the table describe McCarthy as a woman who drills down to the essentials. She is regarded as bluntly honest about what she can deliver or where she will compromise.
“Gina was one of those people you could depend on to gather the facts before making a decision,’’ said Robert Rio, senior vice president at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts Inc., a trade group.
“She can forge consensus with constituencies that are usually incredibly opposed,’’ added Cindy Luppi, New England director of Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group. “And she does it in a way that earns everyone’s respect.’’