It was a deceptively low-key occasion on Capitol Hill: an older man in a dark suit, talking into a TV camera about an energy report.
According to his firm’s 362-page analysis, the fastest path to California’s climate goals included continuing to rely on fossil fuels. The analysis was funded by gas companies and groups related to them, but he wasn’t a lobbyist or industry consultant. Quite the opposite, he was the Obama administration’s well-respected energy secretary, Ernest Moniz.
“We certainly have to get beyond … the climate deniers,” he said in the April 2019 interview with C-SPAN. “But we also have to get beyond what we think are often completely unrealistic proposals for the pace at which we can decarbonize.” Fighting climate change at the pace needed would require a “broad coalition,” he said – one that included the oil and gas industry.
Moniz was wading into a dispute that will define how the new Biden administration tackles the crisis: can oil and gas companies be part of the solution? Or have they proven, with years of disinformation campaigns and efforts to slow climate action, that they will always stand in the way?
As the Biden transition team wrestles with this question, it is already facing pressure from activists not to hire more people with fossil fuel ties, like Louisiana congressman Cedric Richmond, who will join Biden’s White House as a top adviser.
In Moniz’s case:
EFI’s California analysis neatly aligned with what SoCalGas had been arguing as the state tightened its climate goals. It found that gas power plants with technologies to capture their emissions would reduce climate pollution more than any other option, including renewable power. It suggested an all-of-the-above approach.
While gas has helped the US cut its planet-heating emissions by replacing dirtier coal, it remains a major climate polluter that is linked with significant health problems.
Collin Rees, a senior campaigner for Oil Change International said Moniz’s links to fossil fuels aren’t “a blip on his resume”.
“It is his entire professional career for the last couple decades, which is deeply concerning,” Rees said.
The gas industry sponsors of Moniz’s analysis were never a secret. Financial contributors were prominently displayed on the third page of the EFI report, and Moniz said when he released the findings in 2019 that even though gas companies had requested the research, it was still independent. A Moniz spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
Moniz released the California report at an event sponsored by Stanford University’s Natural Gas Initiative, which offers companies access to research “from inception to outcome”, meetings with professors and opportunities to recruit students. The price per year ranges between $35,000 and $250,000.
An internal email from the initiative, shared with the Guardian, shows the initiative’s comfortable relationship with SoCalGas, an affiliate member.
In April 2019, the Sierra Club was criticizing a separate analysis SoCalGas had paid for from the consulting firm Navigant. That report backed up the company’s argument for “renewable gas” – a biogas collected from rotting landfills and sewage treatment plants. SoCalGas has touted biogas as cities across the state have taken steps to reduce the climate emissions from buildings, by transitioning away from gas appliances.
Contacted by SoCalGas, the Stanford initiative’s managing director Naomi Boness stepped in to help. She sent an email to her colleagues with the subject line: “SoCalGas seeking consultant on decarbonization in California.”
The company sought a “highly regarded energy resource scientist or economist” to respond to the Sierra Club’s complaints.
“This could be in the form of a letter or op-ed piece, possibly followed by further research, if needed, and a peer reviewed paper on this topic in the not too distant future,” Boness said. “Please let me know if any of you would be interested in taking on this challenge, and feel free to forward within the Stanford community.”
Stanford spokesperson E J Miranda said: “Stanford energy researchers engage with a broad range of stakeholders in open forums. Our individual faculty and researchers fulfill their academic responsibilities with independence, professional ethics and personal integrity.”
A spokesperson for SoCalGas did not respond to the Guardian’s questions by deadline.
During the Obama administration, SoCalGas advocated against agency climate efforts, including a rule that would incentivize electric appliances over gas ones, according to notes from an American Gas Association meeting obtained by the Guardian. SoCalGas’s owner, Sempra Energy, is also making big bets on the future of gas – investing in export infrastructure in the US and Mexico.
Despite that record, SoCalGas has used Moniz’s research to try to bolster its climate reputation. It posted his report on Facebook without noting it funded the work, and it cited the analysis in an August 2020 letter to California regulators in which it argued that “natural gas and renewable gas … are clean, reliable, affordable, and resilient sources of energy that play a critical part of the solution to California’s energy concerns.”
The company has drawn attention from California’s senator Diane Feinstein and representative Nanette Barragán, who last month wrote to it about reports that it has “worked to undermine California’s transition away from fossil fuels”.
The internal watchdog at the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the company, has asked the commission to fine SoCalGas $255m for abusing customer funds to subvert climate action.
“A lot of people might think, ‘oh, it’s a gas company, it’s lobbying for gas, that makes it like every other gas company,” said Sara Gersen, a clean energy staff attorney with Earthjustice, an environment group that joined the consumer advocate’s complaint. “But its lobbying machine is actually quite unique among gas companies nationwide because most gas companies just leave it to the trade association.”
Charlie Spatz, a researcher with the Climate Investigations Center, said Moniz has strengthened that lobbying machine.
“The report is not necessarily super proscriptive, but by putting his name on there, SoCalGas has been able to do press releases and social media and letters to various commissions and other regulatory bodies,” Spatz said.
EFI has also partnered with the labor group the AFL-CIO to back an “all-of-the above” energy strategy that preserves jobs.
Moniz has not-so-subtly jabbed a progressive Green New Deal that would fight climate change and inequity simultaneously, touting instead a “Green Real Deal,” that would work “within the constraints of technical, cost, and social realities”. Moniz believes fossil gas will be part of the solution, used to back up solar panels and wind turbines that don’t generate power constantly.
Already, Biden has chosen someone from the Stanford orbit to run his energy department transition. The team lead, Arun Majumdar, was the first head of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, ARPA-E, which incubates energy technologies. He later set up a program at Stanford called the Strategic Energy Alliance, which was funded by oil companies Shell, Exxon, and Total, as well as Bank of America. Shell contributed $20m over five years, and Majumdar praised the company for supporting Stanford for 40 years.
“This support comes at a critical time for our energy future,” he said.
Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor at Princeton University who formerly worked under Moniz, said some of the criticism of him is “misplaced”.
“There are very different theories of change about how we’re going to make progress on clean energy in this country. Certain progressives believe that the goal is to defeat the oil and gas sector,” Jenkins said. “There are other people who are equally committed to tackling climate change who believe that one of the most effective ways to do that is to convince incumbent industries that there is money to be made and a role to be played in supporting a clean energy transition as opposed to fighting it to the death.”