WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the Energy Department pledged to increase use of natural gas Tuesday as a way to combat climate change even as the nation seeks to boost domestic energy production.
Ernest Moniz, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said "a stunning increase" in production of domestic natural gas in recent years was nothing less than a "revolution" that has led to reduced emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that cause global warming.
The natural gas boom also has led to a dramatic expansion of manufacturing and job creation, Moniz told the Senate Energy Committee.
Even so, Moniz stopped short of endorsing widespread exports of natural gas, saying he wanted to study the issue further.
A recent study commissioned by the Energy Department concluded that exporting natural gas would benefit the U.S. economy even if it led to higher domestic prices for the fuel.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate energy panel, called the DOE study flawed and said it relied on old data and unrealistic market assumptions.
Moniz said he is open to reviewing the study to ensure that officials have the best possible data before making any decisions.
"We certainly want to make sure that we are using data that is relevant to the decision at hand," he said.
Many U.S. energy companies are hoping to take advantage of the natural gas boom by exporting liquefied natural gas to Europe and Asia, where prices are far higher. Nearly two dozen applications have been filed to export liquefied natural gas, or LNG, to countries that do not have free trade agreements with the United States.
Business groups support LNG exports as a way to create thousands of jobs and spur more U.S. production.
Consumer advocates and some manufacturers that use natural gas as a raw material or fuel source oppose exports, which they say could drive up domestic prices and increase manufacturing costs. Many environmental groups also oppose LNG exports because of fears that increased drilling could lead to environmental problems.
Natural gas results in fewer carbon emissions than other fossil fuels such as coal or oil. But environmental groups worry that drilling techniques such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could harm drinking water supplies or cause other problems.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the panel’s senior Republican, pushed Moniz to support gas exports, which she said would boost her state’s economy.
Moniz said he supports exports as a general rule but would decide applications on a case by case basis, based on a "transparent, analytically based" review.
"I believe the Natural Gas Act kind of suggests that one should move forward with licenses unless there is a clear public-interest issue" against a project, Moniz said, adding that he would consider the cumulative impact of previously approved applications, which could affect the price and supply of natural gas in a particular region.
Moniz endorsed Obama’s "all of the above" approach to energy and said that if confirmed, he also would push for renewable energy such as wind and solar, along with coal and nuclear power.
"The president is an all-of-the above person and I am an all-of-the above person," Moniz said.
Lawmakers from both parties appeared receptive to Moniz, who served as a DOE undersecretary in the Clinton administration. Moniz, 68, leads the MIT Energy Initiative, a research group that gets funding from BP, Chevron and other oil industry heavyweights for academic work aimed at reducing greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. He has advised Obama on numerous energy topics, including how to handle the country’s nuclear waste.
While Moniz encountered little opposition Tuesday, some environmental groups have protested his selection, citing his close industry ties at MIT and his support for fracking, in which large volumes of water, plus sand and chemicals, are injected underground to release trapped oil and gas.
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the environmental group Food & Water Watch, ridiculed Moniz’s comments about a natural gas revolution.
"The only revolution taking place in regards to natural gas is the movement in the United States to reject it and those who advocate for it," she said.