Has the MIT Energy Initiative been captured by natural gas industry money?
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is one of the most venerated engineering institutions in the United States. Its pronouncements and considered opinions have a significant influence on our government’s policy, especially in such important fields as energy. In recent years, the MIT Energy Initiative, a multi-disciplinary team led by Professor Ernie Moniz has issued a series of reports about various energy sources in a series with titles that all begin with “The Future of ___________”.
Here is a quote from near the top of the executive summary of the report titled The Future of Natural Gas.
The overarching conclusions are that:
- Abundant global natural gas resources imply greatly expanded natural gas use, with especially large growth in electricity generation.
- Natural gas will assume an increasing share of the U.S. energy mix over the next several decades, with the large unconventional resource playing a key role.
- The share of natural gas in the energy mix is likely to be even larger in the near to intermediate term in response to CO2 emissions constraints. In the longer term, however, very stringent emissions constraints would limit the role of all fossil fuels, including natural gas, unless capture and sequestration are competitive with other very low-carbon alternatives.
- The character of the global gas market could change dramatically over the time horizon of this study
In contrast, the executive summary of The Future of Nuclear Power, published in 2003, made the following statement.
For a large expansion of nuclear power to succeed, four critical problems must be overcome:
It then proceded to provide explanations of why cost, safety, waste and proliferation were evaluated as being critical, unsolved problems that would slow the deployment of nuclear energy technologies. In 2009, MIT completed an update to the 2003 report that ends with the following statement.
The sober warning is that if more is not done, nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.
There is a stark difference in tone between the two reports that is nearly impossible to miss. Natural gas, which is still so difficult to move from place to place that it is often flared off as a dangerous waste product, is described as having a future with “greatly expanded” consumption, with “especially large growth in electricity generation”, which just happens to be the focus market for businesses that understand nuclear fission technology. On the other hand, emission free, energy dense nuclear fission deserves “sober warnings” and needs a lot of improvement before it can grow.
I cannot help but notice that The Future of Natural Gas received financial support from the American Clean Skies Foundation (aka Chesapeake Energy – both Aubrey McClendon (Chairman, Chesapeake Energy) and Tom Price (VP, Chesapeake Energy) are on the ACSF board of directors), the Hess Corporation, and the Agencia Naçional de Hidrocarburos (Columbia).
The Advisory Committee for the study was led by Mack McClarty, a natural gas industry stalwart who also served as President Clinton’s Chief of Staff, and included such oil and natural gas promoters as Denise Bode currently leader of the American Wind Energy Association but formerly CEO of the ACSF, John Hess, CEO of the Hess Corporation and Greg Staples from ACSF.
On the other hand, The Future of Nuclear Power was sponsored by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, which seems to have no connection to the nuclear energy industry. Its advisory board included both Thomas Cochran from the Natural Resources Defense Council and John Podesta both of whom have a long history of expressing strong skepticism about the use of nuclear energy.
With permission, I wanted to share this note posted to a private email list to which I subscribe. I am not publishing the author’s name, but Dr. Moniz and some of his colleagues at MIT might be able to recognize who wrote the note:
Colleagues, I’m forwarding this to you, but not because I recommend attending. This is an annual student-run conference at MIT, and it is exceptionally well done organizationally. Anything involving “energy” at MIT goes straight through the MIT energy guru, Ernie Moniz. And nuclear is an afterthought at best with Moniz.
In the first 5 conferences, I was told by several MIT nuclear engineering graduate students that nuclear got almost no play. Last year, driven by frustration, several of the NE grad students got on the inside and inserted a couple of panels in the program.
I chaired one of the panels, a session on small modular reactors. The conference, and our panel session, were both very well attended. I guess that there were about 500 conference attendees, and maybe 200 at our session. My reward for attending was the opening night reception.
The keynote speakers were Ed Markey followed by Moniz. The two of them kept pointing and winking and smiling knowingly at each other. As I dimly recall anything they said about nuclear was cast in a negative tone. It was nauseating.
It appears from this year’s program that the MIT NE students returned to the sidelines. I’ve searched the program for anything to do with nuclear power, but can’t find a thing other than Nu Scale Power’s participation in a poster session that will have about 100 other presenters.
How can one of our absolute best technical institutions act this stupidly? Their nuclear engineering program was probably the best in the nation, maybe along with Michigan, for a long time. MIT’s NE department has fallen on hard times with retirements and departures, but they are still top-drawer and may very well regain #1. Their drawing power remains outstanding.
On the other hand, perhaps their institutional neglect of, or hostility toward, nuclear will catch up with them. In that event, perhaps they are headed to a long, slow decline in nuclear engineering research and education.
Just in case you do not follow the link on Ed Markey’s name, let me make it clear that Rep. Markey has a strong relationship with the natural gas industry. His congressional district hosts the oldest liquified natural gas import terminal in the United States.
The facility started operating a few years before Markey was first elected to Congress in 1976 and it has prospered for the past three decades, partially as a result of the significant constraints placed on nuclear energy development in New England and the early shutdowns of Yankee Rowe, Connecticut Yankee, Maine Yankee and Millstone unit 1.
Markey’s antinuclear activism played a role in achieving those reductions in nuclear energy output that would have reduced the need to burn expensively transported natural gas imported from foreign countries.
Aside Long time Atomic Insights readers might remember a challenge to the MIT energy faculty issued last summer. My friends who seek to remind the world that the United States developed a rather amazing nuclear energy technology called the Integral Fast Reactor wanted a chance to discuss the MIT report on the future of the nuclear fuel cycle.
I just heard back from a contact at MIT that they are still thinking about responding, but not directly, perhaps sometime next fall. I have been following through every few months; each time that contact tells me that the timing is just not right or that the relentless march of semester schedules prevents action and organization. End aside.
The IFR program was was killed just as it was getting ready to demonstrate a viable, passively safe, closed fuel cycle in 1994. The fatal blow was the Clinton Administration budget submitted for fiscal year 1994, which zeroed out all funding for nuclear energy research. That budget proposal was strongly influenced by the same Mack McLarty mentioned above as the leader of the Advisory Committee for the MIT study on the Future of Natural Gas.
Ernie Moniz joined the Clinton Administration the year after it zeroed all nuclear research funding and continued to serve until the completion of Clinton’s second term.
Update: (Posted February 25, 2012) On February 23, 2012, John Deutch, who was a co-chair for MIT’s Future of Nuclear Power (see page iii), published a fawning op-ed about natural gas and North American oil as abundant energy sources. Here is a quote:
The outlook for gas is that we are going to have an extended supply available at a reasonable cost of extraction for the foreseeable future. This implies that gas prices will be low and that gas will become a substitute for renewables, nuclear, and coal plants, especially older ones. We will be generating electricity from gas at a much lower cost than other developed countries, our competitors, will have to pay.
In the meantime, there is a great deal more potential for oil production in North America from shale. North Dakota is becoming the third-largest state producer in the United States. North America will be producing a higher percentage of its oil requirements than it is currently and importing less oil from abroad. The economic consequences are enormous.
See what I mean about being captured? Perhaps “victim of groupthink” of the northeastern US elites would be a better description. End Update.
The primary issue is that pipeline natural gas is temporarily cheap. Even the wizards of MIT (and some of them ended up my profs at UCSB, small world…) seem to have been seduced by this brief abundance. Still, the school boasts folks like Mujid Kazimi who is an advisor to the UAE nuclear program. We need to keep up the pressure so that MIT gives a balanced perspective of the global long term energy picture.
A lot of old money in the northeast; money that came from carbon extraction industry so it’s not that surprising that nuclear fission receives this type of treatment at MIT.
Given the situation I think it is time to begin to explore the possible synergies of natural gas and nuclear in creating liqud synfuels.
Or look at synergies of coal, natural gas, and nuclear in creating liquid fuels.
The synergy exists when reactors can get above 450C. At this point a heat pump can amplify the reactor output temperature to ~820C. The weak leg in this synergy is the heat pump, S-CO2 is very promising and efficient, but not proven. Helium is proven but would carry a larger thermodynamic penalty.
It is remarkable how much more effective and efficient fossil fuel liquefaction is when none of the chemical feedstock is used to to generate heat. It becomes a way of storing nuclear heat in chemical bonds.
DV8, think coal plus nuclear, not NG. NG is too scarce. Coal is about to need some new US markets. Hopefully Cal Abel can chime in. The biggest short term hurdles, IMO, are licensing (of course) and not having a high enough temperature reactor quite yet.
And Cal had chimed in before me, but the delay persists. I know Rod has to be a bit frustrated by this posting delay.
Well, to slightly descend from highbrow engineering prose, it would appear obvious that one of America’s foremost scientific institutions has prostituted itself to natural gas interests. In short, MIT has become a whore to known sociopaths, who it has been repeatedly shown, will spend millions to discredit climate science, and to put earth’s ecosystem at risk, for the sake of their venal self-interest and profits. Well done, MIT!
Bulled number 4 from the executive summary reads
“The character of the global gas market could change dramatically over the time horizon of this study”
In other words, gas prices could rise and this study would be completely wrong.
I wonder if they include it because they do expect the markets to change dramatically but simply give natural gas a glowing review to get funding?
There is a Bias at MIT that is directly tied to Wall Street Bankers and Stock Exchanges. Further there is a bias about the source of a new concept coming from the general populace. Conforming to MIT policy in such matters as energy is a prerequisite to succeeding at MIT. Whilst the MIT achievements in new technology in general is outstanding, their is no wiggle room for any deviation from their energy policy.
Perhaps the folks at MIT are trying to protect their $9.7 billion financial endowment. I don’t know their portforlio, but don’t be surprised to find a good amount of oil and gas stocks. These stocks do quite well when the price of those fuels climbs.
There are two snags about “natural” gas. In the first place, methane itself is a worse greenhouse gas than CO2. In the second place every methane molecule CH4 is oxidised to one CO2 and two H2O. So although it is rated as producing less global warming per Joule than coal, it’s not the solution.
Of course I have not mentioned how filthy the process of “fracking” for the gas is, and I suspect that even the opponents of fracking haven’t found all the horrors. Who’d have expected a correlation with low-scale earthquakes?
I’m damned sorry to read about Markey.
I am glad I’m not the only one who sees the irony in releasing huge amounts of natural gas (AKA methane, AKA the most potent greenhouse gas) from the earth’s crust as a method for mitigating climate change….
@Suzy – Like you, I also see a lot of irony in the way that the natural gas industry and their open (and covert) spokespeople use “low carbon” as a marketing talking point in their battle against cheaper coal until a nuke shows up in the conversation to point out that we have an almost perfectly zero carbon technology.
As soon as that happens, CO2 becomes a non-issue or even “plant food” whose build up in the atmosphere is somehow beneficial.
I truly think that what has happened in the past 5 years or so is that the gas industry realized that its effort to promote itself as a low carbon replacement for coal as a bridge to a distant, renewable energy utopia backfired because nuclear energy was not as knocked down as the marketers thought.
As soon as the nuclear industry started to show signs that the “report of its death was an exaggeration” the natural gas industry shills changed their story and directed their efforts toward complete denial of the hazard of dumping billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year.
I always wondered what the natural gas believers were thinking anyway – how is using something that produces at least half as much C02 per unit energy supposed to help achieve a large overall reduction in the face of a growing population that demands the power needed for an abundant life?
Of course, the recent revelations about the direct payments from the natural gas industry to those who promoted gas as an environmentally superior choice to coal helps to answer that question.
Yup, let’s attack the motives when we don’t agree with the facts and conclusion…typical left leaning agenda and dogma.
Guilty as charged. I strongly disagree with the “facts” as are being sold by the fossil fuel interests and their agents and I definitely believe that means, motive and opportunity to deceive are important stories that need to be shared as widely as possible.
I also plead guilty to leaning to the left, but I deny that I am governed by any kind of dogma at all. My left leaning nature is actually driven by being a member of the religious left that holds all people in high regard and that seeks to perform acts that demonstrate compassion. In my opinion, working to vastly increase the supply of emission free atomic energy achieves many worthy goals that will enrich the lives of millions to billions of people.
There are plenty of very wealthy and powerful people who do not share my vision of a world empowered by an abundance of cheap, clean heat from millions of nuclear fission reactors. Those people have a very strong motive for working hard to scare people away from accepting that vision because abundant, emission free energy makes their products virtually worthless – or at least worth less (far less).
In addition to what Albert Rogers stated, a recent study published in Nature points out that uncontrolled emissions of methane in gas fields could be far higher than previously thought, eliminating any benefit with regard to GHG emissions compared to burning coal or oil.
Twice in the past decade, natural gas prices have spiked, causing serious problems to the consumers. In CA, which is quite dependent on natgas for home heating and cooking as well as for power generation, elderly people on fixed incomes had a tough time. I can imagine a situation in which the US becomes very dependent on natgas, ignores nuclear (cheaper in the long run) and then the prices go through the roof. Also: more gas pipelines and plants=more explosions.
Energy availability varies from place to place. The energy sources must be used in co-operation and competition and not as adversaries. There are niches where one is better than others. An example is diesel generators installed as assured power supply even at nuclear plants. A suggestion I have frequently made in blog posts is use of RTGs using cheaper Cs and Sr isotopes available from reprocessing used nuclear fuel.
Liquid fuels have an advantages transportation due to current practices. Nuclear can provide sufficient energy to total world. Coal is currently the cheapest. Even if given up as fuel, it will be a useful feed-stock for carbon compounds for various uses eventually even liquid fuel.
Just wanted to discuss two issues about this article:
#1. I am amazed at the audacity of the workshop, “The Future of Baseload”. It’s as if this is a new subject to MIT and other academics. It is not. Many utilities have been dealing with these issues for years. It is the intermittency of wind and solar that is partly driving the long term analysts of the utility world to choose natural gas over other baseload generation assets. State Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) must be considered for long range planning and investments at the utility level and the RPS issues have been on the table for years.
RPS requirements and subsidies are one factor driving the investment in wind which is one of the drivers for natural gas facilities. Just look at the new requirements for California where their governor wants 33% of the state generated power to come from “renewables”. Those legal/political issues play a very significant role in the decision making process when investments are required to add or maintain generation assets. The press continues to trumpet that that gas prices will remain low for the next 10+ years and there is no doubt that fact is playing into the decisions at the board room level. However there are also legal issues of meeting state RPS requirements that are boxing in the analysts who are usually financially trained not technically trained.
#2 It appears Dr. Moniz is a wolf in sheep’s clothing where nuclear power is concerned. I have not paid much attention to him but the few times I have seen him pop up I come away with the impression that, for an engineering leader at the engineering school used as a model for other engineering schools, he appears to not really like nuclear power. His comments are not positive and he comes across as an academic who is more focused on the negatives of nuclear power instead of a balanced approachto power generation assets considering the long term constraints we face.
Looking at his resume on the BRC website may explain his negativity. It indicates his experience is completely within the academic and government arenas. What is missing is any experience in the commercial nuclear reactor world. Additionally his focus when with the DOE appears to be in the nuclear weapons and nonproliferation side, not the nuclear reactor side of the issues. Therefore, from my perspective, it appears his opinion of commercial nuclear power is being driven by the nonproliferation issues which potentially puts him in the same camp as The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists who are not exactly known or their support of nuclear power.
Given that the nuclear proliferators, aside from India (which is threatened by nuclear China) mostly do not have serious nuclear energy efforts (Iran’s seems to be a fig leaf), the fact that nations do not need a nuclear fuel cycle to use nuclear power, and that the plutonium from PWRs is essentially useless for weapons due to its high Pu-240 and Pu-241 content, you would think that Dr. Moniz could be persauded to change his position.
That is, if those pretexts actually have anything to do with it. More likely he has friends and political allies who are anti-nuke across the board, and he’d rather be wrong than lose them.
I am not sure what makes you think that Iran’s nuclear energy program is a fig leaf other than the possibility that you are simply too influenced by what you are reading in the media.
Do you have inside information?
I don’t, but Iran’s program seems completely rational and driven toward a desire to thumb their noses at a world that has put them under severe sanctions more times than I care to count. If I was a leader in a country with Iran’s history, there is no way that I would stop in my drive for an independent nuclear energy capacity.
What gives the US, Israel and Europe the right to tell the Iranians that they are not allowed to enrich uranium? Enriching uranium enables some very capable and cost effective nuclear energy system development. Failing to enrich would make CANDU style heavy water or gas cooled graphite reactors the only independent alternative. It seems to me that neither one of those designs is particularly resistent to being repurposed for weapons material production if the owner is motivated to move in that direction.
The fact that the enrichment program was clandestine, is far too small to supply a power reactor, and so far the public accomplishment is the creation of a fuel plate for a research reactor similar to those used by other proliferators to make weapons-grade plutonium.
What is the rationale for buying reactors from Russia, and not buying LEU fuel from Russia? Fuel can be stockpiled if there is a concern about sanctions, and PWR fuel isn’t a proliferation threat.
Iran has made enough bellicose statements to be concerned that it is not interested in deterrence, but will use any weapons capability as soon as it obtains it.
Fuel can only be stockpiled if the supplier will sell as much as ordered. There was no offer on the table to supply more than normal fuel loads at normal intervals.
Research reactors have secondary roles as sources of medical isotopes. The sanctions on Iran make obtaining those useful materials extremely difficult and costly.
The enrichment program started out as clandestine at a time when the US was supplying arms to Iraq, which was attacking Iran and its own people with chemical weapons. Would you have been open about a uranium enrichment program under those circumstances?
One more thing – fuel for reactors should be just another internationally traded product. There are plenty of reasons to make it rather than buy it. Even if indigenously produced fuel is more expensive initially due to start up and learning curve related costs, a successful program brings new skills and provides the potential for a new source of revenue.
Wow you guys have chutzpah! (That’s the nicest way I can say it – I think if you’re going to slander MIT and Moniz you should perhaps come right out and call them industry mouthpieces – instead of merely imply it. I also sort of chuckle at the idea that Moniz can get a half dozen other MIT professors to line up and dance to his tune. When it comes to getting MIT faculty to agree on something, the image of herding cats comes to mind).
The whole idea that MIT with it’s 10 billion dollar endowment is going to care one whit what Aubrey McClendon thinks is absurd. Aubrey is himself getting hammered by the cheap natural gas prices he helped create. MIT **is** the 1% without anybodies money – if anything it’s McClendon that runs the risk of losing his position in society. I doubt MIT can save CHK, the gas prices persist at being rock bottom despite the US switching out coal plants as fast is it can.
But really the nuclear power industry and the shale gas industry have the same foe – the fearmongering anti-science NIMBY crew. Really, nukes and gas should team up to shut coal down entirely, instead of this silly sniping. You really think the big problem with nuclear power is Moniz and shale gas? You don’t think that little whoopsie that happened a couple years back in Japan has anything to do with it? Geez louise, grow up and act like an adult for a change, OK?
Do you think that Chesapeake Energy is the only purveyor of the myth that shale gas is cheap and abundant? Do you believe they are even the deep pockets player in the strategic move to capture as much market share from coal and nuclear energy as possible in the potentially lucrative market of selling fuel to electrical power generators?
ExxonMobil could replace MIT’s complete endowment every financial quarter out of its profits from selling essentially two products – crude oil and extracted natural gas. Sure, they also supply derivatives of those two products.
During the past five years or so, crude oil and overseas natural gas has been providing most of the profits booked by ExxonMobil (and Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Total, and most other oil companies). However, that company invested at least $41 billion into the US natural gas market in 2010 when it purchased XTO and it has continued investing to increase its production capacity ever since.
I’ve listened to their quarterly analyst calls. Analysts keep asking them why they are putting money into a market that is oversupplied and has prices that are about 1/4 as high as the going rate internationally. The answer given, couched in financial code words, is that internal pricing models at ExxonMobil indicate that natural gas prices in the US will rise to very profitable levels in the relatively near future. Then they explain how popular gas is relative to its competitors (coal and nuclear) and how well positioned the company is to capture market share from those fuels.
I strongly disagree with you about nuclear energy’s foe. In my analysis, the foe with the most to lose from an expanding nuclear energy industry that builds and operates as many new nuclear plants as possible is the multinational hydrocarbon industry. They know that shale gas is a myth, but that is okay; they have enormous investments in LNG in Qatar, Australia, and Russia that are waiting to supply addicted customers as soon as the prices rise to the “right” (for the petroleum companies) levels.
One more thing – we do agree that MIT is a part of the 1% and is seeking to protect the establishment that provided that $10 billion endowment over the years. As a retired naval officer, I am well aware of the importance of petroleum to the global balance of power. Thirst for oil and gas underpins most conflicts and provides most of the impetus for the global business of selling weapons.
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