Energy nominee’s MIT gas study faulted over industry ties

President Barack Obama’s nominee for energy secretary is drawing criticism for leading a study that minimized risks of natural gas while failing to disclose that some of its researchers had financial ties to the industry.

The nominee, Ernest Moniz, who now is the head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Institute, came out with its report in 2011 that said the environmental risks of increased drilling and production “are challenging but manageable.”

One of the report’s co-authors had already agreed to take a position with Talisman Energy Inc. when the report was released.

Another researcher was on the board of Cheniere Energy Inc., which is building an export facility for liquefied natural gas.

“The public should have been informed that MIT’s natural gas study was written by representatives of the oil and gas industry,” said Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative, a research group in Buffalo, New York that is critical of the use of hydraulic fracturing for gas drilling and compiled the details of these industry ties. “Aren’t there academics there not on the payroll of gas companies?”

It’s unlikely this disclosure will harm Moniz’s chances of confirmation. Obama has also supported development of natural gas through fracturing, and the Energy Department doesn’t regulate the practice. That is left to the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department.

“The president has made clear that natural gas has a central role to play in our nation’s energy future,” Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman, said in an e-mail. “Dr. Moniz’s work at MIT demonstrates his ability to work collaboratively with a wide spectrum of stakeholders on a broad range of energy issues.”

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee scheduled a hearing on his nomination for April 9.

Some environmental groups have criticized Moniz’s nomination because of his support for natural gas as a so-called bridge fuel from carbon-intensive coal to cleaner energy such as solar. Some local activists say tapping that gas using fracturing, in which water, sand and chemicals are shot underground, causes air and water contamination.

Moniz has said there are risks, and industry disclosure and government regulation can contain them. “Research and regulation, both state and Federal, are needed to minimize the environmental consequences,” the MIT researchers said in their report.

MIT’s Energy Institute discloses that it is sponsored by companies such as BP Plc, Saudi Aramco and Duke Energy Corp., as well as foundations. When it published its Future of Natural Gas report in 2011, it disclosed the groups and companies that funded that study, including the Clean Skies Foundation, which backs natural gas and has close ties to Chesapeake Energy Corp.

All of the MIT professors must file financial disclosure forms with the university, and research is done independently of funding, said Victoria Ekstrom, a spokeswoman for the Energy Institute.

Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy and transportation program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group critical of fracturing, was a member of the advisory board for the study. He called it “well balanced” and a fair report. While Cavanagh has differences with some of the conclusions, the process “was very much in the spirit of peer review.”

“The highest goal of technical people like myself is: What’s true?” Daniel Cohn, a MIT professor who was part of the study, said in an interview. “And I feel that standard was met here.”

Connor’s group highlighted two main criticisms with the researchers involved in the study. First, Anthony Meggs, a visiting professor at MIT and co-chairman of the group, had already agreed to join Talisman, the Canadian gas company, when the study was released. Nonetheless, he presented the finding that the risks are “challenging but manageable” at the press conference for the report.

Meggs has since left Talisman, spokeswoman Phoebe Buckland said in an e-mail.

Second, John Deutch, an MIT chemistry professor and former CIA director, was a member of the board of Cheniere when the report was released. The report backed the export of LNG, which Cheniere is trying to do.

Deutch, who remains on Cheniere’s board, didn’t return an e-mail and telephone message asking for comment.