Obama energy star on DOE, fly-fishing and Moniz’s hair

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Melanie Kenderdine, a star of the Obama-era Energy Department, is on the outside looking in these days.

The 63-year-old native of Houston often hailed as the “right hand” of former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, left the agency in January and has joined him in establishing a think tank and advisory firm, the Energy Futures Initiative.

Four years ago, she was tasked with launching a high-profile policy shop within DOE and overseeing a complex review of the threats facing the nation’s sprawling energy systems.

Under President Trump, that work may be abandoned.

The policy hub she set up in 2013 at DOE, the Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis, could be dismantled under the president’s fiscal 2018 budget. Also unclear is the fate of the Quadrennial Energy Review, a multivolume study of the nation’s energy infrastructure that Kenderdine led to review the effects of climate change, cyber and physical attacks, and more on the U.S. energy system.

But her new firm is arguing the case for tackling climate change through low-carbon power and for innovation in energy systems that create jobs and security.

Kenderdine, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who’s worked under four Energy secretaries in the Clinton and Obama eras and is the agency’s longest-serving political appointee, recently took a break from her 80-hour workweek to talk about the importance of the office she ran, fly-fishing and her former boss’s famous hairstyle.

What stood out when you first met Moniz?

I liked his hair. I grew up in the ’70s, where you gravitated toward men with long hair, you notice it. I’m a child of the 70s, where long hair was really in. He’s a lot more than his hair, but it is attention-getting.

I’d been at DOE since ’93, when I first met Ernie. He came in as the undersecretary nominee in ’97 to DOE.

When did you realize it was a working partnership?

When we were putting together some testimony [for Moniz while undersecretary]. We spent a huge amount of time getting that testimony right. Ernie delivers it and the secretary, Federico Peña, came into Ernie’s office and said, ‘I read your testimony … how come I can’t get testimony written like that?’

So it became a strong strategic partnership that way. That’s when he first started asking me to come to his staff meetings.

So you fly-fish with Moniz and his wife Naomi in southern Colorado. Are you any good?

[Ernie] is really good, he loves it. I have a good cast, but I never catch anything. I’m into form, not function. I like to cast, there’s a skill in it, it’s a very elegant kind of thing to do. I grew up in the mountains of New Mexico, I like being out in trout streams in the Rockies.

What first drew you to energy?

New Mexico is a very energy-rich state. I moved to Washington when Bill Richardson was elected to Congress. I worked in his campaign in 1980, they redistricted, he lost in ’80. New Mexico picked up an additional seat in ’82, he ran in the new seat and won. That was my first Hill experience, and he was on the Energy Committee, so I spent six years doing his Energy Committee work.

You launched DOE’s Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis in 2013, and that office could be scrapped under the president’s budget.

There’s a team of incredible energy analysts in that office. Not only the first and second installments of the Quadrennial Energy Review, which were I think seminal pieces of work with significant recommendations on what we should do both with our energy infrastructure and our electricity system from generation to end use, but a lot of other analytical work that provides the secretary with unbiased analysis that’s not constrained by program objectives.

One program’s objectives may conflict with another program’s, the renewable energy office and the fossil energy office, for example. They frequently disagree. When we came in, DOE wasn’t speaking with one policy voice.

How they’re going to manage those kinds of disputes if they eliminate the office, I don’t know.

What about your parents? Were they scientists?

My father, Eugene, worked at Sandia [National] Labs for 42 years, he won an award for being the “father of strong links,” that’s a big deal in nuclear weapons safety culture. It’s a mechanical device that keeps nuclear weapons from going off. My mother, Evelyn Weiss, was a nurse, although she was also a homemaker.

Do you have brothers and sisters?

I have a sister and a living brother, my younger brother killed himself. That’s why I’m board chair of Alliance of Hope, a national suicide survivors online support network. I’m comfortable talking about that, a lot of people aren’t. I do a fair amount with them. My natural reaction is to try and help people in similar circumstances, it’s devastating.

How did you meet your husband, Steven Cary?

I met my husband through Bill [Richardson], they went to Tufts. He’s an environmental engineer. He just retired. He worked doing groundwater protection in New York state for many years. My husband was in [Bill’s] wedding, we’re old family friends.

And your son, Victor, he’s also studying energy?

Yes, he graduated from MIT in 2014, and he’s now studying petroleum engineering at New Mexico Tech.

Is it true Richardson, who would go on to be Energy secretary, used to grab other lawmakers by the lapels to make a point?

Bill was an incredible wheeler-dealer.

Do you have pets?

I have an American shorthair cat named Blaise. We got him when we returned from a vacation in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and the patron saint of Croatia is St. Blaise. That’s what he’s named after.

Does Blaise travel with you?

He was on a plane yesterday. He’s never left the house. Moving him from the house he’s never left to the hotel, I thought he was going to have a heart attack in the car. But he was fine in the plane, I guess he likes the sound of engines.