Energy secretary: Emission cuts to be 'practical'

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz
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U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz

The U.S. must balance its commitment to reducing carbon emissions with the "ground truth" that the world's largest economy still relies heavily on fossil fuels, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said on Monday.

In a broad speech in New York, Moniz touted President Barack Obama's recently announced initiatives to tackle climate change, while indicating the future of energy development would carefully embrace natural gas production.

He cited extreme weather disturbances, including Hurricane Sandy and the forest fire ravaging Yosemite, as being linked to climate change. Moniz added that the U.S. needs to "build toward a low-carbon future."

Still, Moniz said, the Obama administration is committed to a "practical" approach that balances the need to reduce carbon dioxide with the realities of surging U.S. energy production.

"The ground truth … is that 80 percent of our energy today is fossil-derived," Moniz said, pointing out that the transportation is overwhelmingly powered by oil and gas.

"Hopefully, we're going toward a future using low-carbon fuel and electricity, but the reality is that in the energy business it's very hard to see rapid changes," the official said. "We have to be practical and pragmatic in reducing greenhouse emissions."

No 'war on coal'; natgas gets thumbs-up

Moniz dismissed charges that the government had declared "a war on coal," even as he carefully promoted the role of natural gas in displacing the carbon-based fuel as a means of generating electricity.

The energy secretary stated that coal's proponents were resorting to "misunderstanding and misstatement" of the administration's objectives. "This is not a war on coal," he said, raising the possibility that the fuel may "have a place in the low-carbon world as we go forward."

Moniz added that a major reason the U.S. is on pace to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is because of the surge in natural gas production. He attempted to walk a fine line between the fuel's benefits, and the environmental concerns that have dogged fracking initiatives around the globe.

"It is a fact that the natural gas revolution has been a major factor in reducing carbon emissions," said the department head, who was interrupted several times by a heckler opposed to hydraulic fracturing, the method by which shale gas is extracted.

"Certainly in the near-term, this substitution for natural gas … will be a major contributor to reducing carbon emissions," he said.

By CNBC's Javier E. David