Balancing Environmental Interests and Our Energy Future: Often A Difficult Call

I may be dipping my toe (foot?) in doo-doo by taking on this issue with my natural constituency – environmentalists – but here goes. Two articles in today’s (17 January 2014) Washington Post got my attention and stimulated this blog post.

The first piece, ‘Green groups assail Obama on climate’ (digital edition tile: ‘Environmental groups say Obama needs to address climate change more aggressively’), starts off as follows: “A group of the nation’s leading environmental organizations is breaking with the administration over its energy policy, arguing that the White House needs to apply a strict climate test to all its energy decisions or risk undermining one of the president’s second-term priorities.” It goes on to list a number of ways in which the Obama administration has taken steps to limit carbon dioxide emissions, but the environmentalists’ letter takes issue with the administration for “..embracing domestic production of natural gas, oil and coal under an “all of the above” energy strategy.”

The other Washington Post piece that got my attention was a brief reference to the draft of the soon-to-be-released IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report on global warming (‘U.N. cautions against delay on climate change’). It states: “Delaying action on global warming will only increase the costs and reduce the options for dealing with the worst effects of climate change…global warming will continue to increase unless countries cut emissions and shift quickly to clean energy.”

If one reviews my earlier posts in this blog it will be clear that I support a rapid transition to a clean energy future based on energy efficiency and renewable energy. Having devoted my professional career in government to that end, I believe that President Obama ‘gets it’ re global warming and the need for renewables. In fact, I chose not to retire from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2009, when I was more than old enough to do so, because we had finally elected a President who I believed did ‘get it’, after the frustrating years of Bush 43. I believe my trust was well founded based on President Obama’s subsequent behavior, in word and in action, and it bothers me that some of my environmental colleagues apparently see it differently. I may be getting old and you can say that I am getting more cranky and conservative in my dotage, but I don’t think so. I see myself as more aware of the realities of governing, especially after a long career in Washington, DC, and think Obama is doing a good job under very difficult circumstances (yes, I am referring to a dysfunctional Congress). I do see value in keeping the pressure up on a sometimes-too-political White House, but let’s at least acknowledge more often that the guy is doing a good job, and a much better one than Clinton and Gore did in the 1990’s when they faced similar political problems. Obama is finally getting us started on the path we should have been on twenty years ago.

To be more specific: I recognize and regret that the U.S. does not yet have an energy policy that creates the economic environment for a rapid transition to a clean energy future, as is true of a few other countries (e.g., the EU). It is critically needed, but the reality is that creating such a policy ultimately is the responsibility of our legislative branch. All the Executive Branch’s rhetoric can’t change that, although it has to keep pushing as much as it can and implementing as much as it can through executive orders.

One impact already is a significant reduction in power generation in the U.S. using coal, due to its replacement as a fuel by natural gas. This is due to the large amounts of shale gas released by fracking, a technology that I believe is unstoppable (see my blog entitled ‘Fracking: The Promise and the Problems’) and needs careful regulation. Many environmentalists oppose fracking because of the real risks it poses to water supplies, and I share those concerns, but the important upside is that using natural gas instead of coal for power generation puts much less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If renewables were ready soon to assume the power generation burden, and our transportation infrastructure was electrified and ready to use hydrogen in fuel cell vehicles (for which the hydrogen was generated from renewables-based electrolysis of water), then down with fracking for natural gas and oil. But that is not where we are today, and fracking and its economic returns will be with us for a while. Lots of work to prepare the way to our inevitable clean energy future still needs to be done. For similar reasons I do not oppose the Keystone Pipeline – I recognize its risks and wish we could avoid its extension, but stopping it is not going to stop Canada from exploiting its tar sands resources. I’d rather have that oil coming to the U.S. and reducing our continuing dependence on imports from other, less friendly countries. Imports are going down but will still be with us for a while until we introduce greater electrification of our transportation fleets.

Lots of other issues come into this discussion, for which I have no time in this blog if I am to keep it to a reasonable length. The bottom line in my head is that we (clean energy advocates, environmentalists) have to do a better job of educating the public about the long-term advantages of a clean energy society (including jobs) and elect representatives in both the House and Senate who ‘get it’ and feel the pressure from home to move us more rapidly in this direction. Ultimately, politicians understand the power of the ballot box if they understand nothing else. One of our tasks is to use that power effectively.