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Ernest Moniz confirmed unanimously as Energy secretary

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Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File

(Read caption) Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz testifies at his nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington last month. With a background in both government and science, Mr. Moniz is seen as a departure from his predecessor, Steven Chu.

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The US Senate unanimously confirmed Ernest Moniz as Energy secretary Thursday.

The bipartisan approval of the nuclear physicist comes in contrast to divided opinions over the fate of another key member of President Obama's second-term energy and environment team. Citing transparency concerns, Republican lawmakers have sought to stall the nomination of Gina McCarthy, Mr. Obama's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

With a background in both government and science, Mr. Moniz is seen as a departure from his predecessor, Steven Chu. Moniz served as under secretary of the Department of Energy between 1997 and 2001. Prior to his nomination, he was the director of the Energy Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Moniz also served on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

In his confirmation hearing last month, Moniz stressed the importance of a diverse, balanced energy portfolio. He is expected to be the flag-bearer of President Obama's "all-of-the-above" energy policy, a strategy he openly embraces. Research and development should be "first and foremost," he said, in the Department's work towards a clean-energy future. 

In the past, environmentalists have objected to Moniz's views on hydraulic fracturing and natural gas. He says natural gas will serve as a "bridge fuel" to a carbon-free economy. For some environmental groups, it means an unnecessary and continued reliance on fossil fuels.  

"Natural gas is a dirty, dangerous fossil fuel, which poses serious health risks due to air and water pollution from fracking and releases large quantities of methane – a gas that has more than 70 times the climate impact of carbon dioxide," Deb Nardone, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Natural Gas Campaign, said in a statement Thursday. “To do what is right by the American public, we need Secretary Moniz to go all in on smart energy and climate solutions, like solar, wind, and energy efficiency and to protect our children’s health and future, while creating jobs for American workers."

That's easier said than done. Moniz will inherit a department embroiled in controversies over recent federal loans to failed clean-energy companies. He will play a major role in an important decision about if and how to open up the country's vast natural gas resources to world markets. He will probably see his budget slashed as the sequester and potential further spending cuts play out. That's in contrast to the wealth of stimulus funding Secretary Chu had to work with at the start of his tenure. 

He has reason to be upbeat, though. The cost of photovoltaics has dropped dramatically recently, putting solar energy within reach for many people. Tesla Motors, a DOE-backed electric car company, is the current darling of the industry. A revolution in drilling techniques has opened up vast domestic resources of oil and gas. 

Moniz also has support in the energy industry.

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"Secretary Moniz understands the energy revolution underway in the United States," Jack Gerard, president and chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement Thursday. "New technology and the use of that technology are showing we have vastly more energy potential than we thought we had even just a short time ago."

The outlook for Ms. McCarthy, Obama's EPA nominee, is less certain. Republicans staged a boycott of her committee vote last week, accusing the EPA of not responding to questions about the nominee. The committee met again Thursday and voted 10-8 in favor. Her nomination now goes to the Senate floor, where Republicans could stage a filibuster.

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