Am I Still An Environmentalist?

This piece has been a long time coming. The reason I raise the question is simple: my recent public statements in favor of approving the Keystone XL pipeline and that fracking is here to stay for a while and we need to act accordingly. The question I’ve asked myself is: does taking these positions override a lifelong professional commitment to clean energy and environmental protection in environmentalists’ eyes? In mine it does not. Both positions are strongly opposed by vocal and perhaps significant fractions of the ‘environmental movement’. What that fraction is is not clear. I also wish to offer some unsolicited advice to my fellow environmentalists to help ensure that environmentalism will continue to flourish in the years and decades ahead.

First a little background. I’m a trained scientist (physics) who started thinking about clean energy (solar, wind, ..) in the early 1970s and have spent most of my professional career helping to prepare these technologies for wide scale deployment. I’ve also worked hard to advance energy efficiency as the cornerstone of national energy policy.

My involvement in planning and management of renewable electric programs at the U.S. Department of Energy, from which I retired in 2012, exposed me to some of the less attractive realities of the renewable energy world, such as solar energy advocates denigrating wind energy, and vice versa. I reacted strongly at the time, seeing such self-interested behavior as damaging to the long-term interests of the nation and the renewable energy community. I now fear for the long-term interests of the environmental movement as I see parts of it putting what I consider too much energy into battles that it cannot win. In my opinion this can only harm the movement’s image with the public and thus environmentalism’s needed and long term impacts.

Why do I feel this way? Despite my strong belief that the U.S. must reduce its heavy dependence on fossil fuels as quickly as possible, for environmental, economic and national security reasons, and that we must move as quickly as possible to an energy future based on renewable energy, my sense of reality is that this cannot happen tomorrow and that the public recognizes this, despite their often-repeated enthusiasm for renewables. The public wants leadership and a clean energy future, but it also wants energy, the services energy makes possible, and a realistic path to that future. When environmentalists and others imply that our current dependence on fossil fuels can be undone in a decade or so I take strong issue. It will take decades, even with a willing Congress, and fuels derived from petroleum will still be needed to move our cars and trucks while we move to develop alternative fuels. The Keystone XL pipeline will not reduce Canadian mining and production of its tar sands, the rationale behind environmental opposition to the pipeline, and I’d rather have that oil coming to the U.S. via a modern and highly regulated pipeline than via truck and rail and barge.

We have made significant progress in reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere by replacing coal with natural gas in power production, but solar and wind and geothermal and biomass and hydropower and ocean energy are not yet ready to take on that full burden. We need natural gas as a transition fuel to our clean energy future, even though its combustion still releases CO2. It is still much better than burning coal, and careful regulation and enforcement of fracking can minimize the amount of natural gas, a powerful greenhouse gas, that leaks into the environment.

Finally, I recommend that my environmental colleagues join with me in putting our energies into making sure that the pipeline and fracking are done as well as possible, that national policies encourage maximum utilization of energy efficiency to minimize energy and water demands, and that a steadily increasing price is put on carbon emissions. All these points are essential, but this latter point to me is critical. Without a clear signal to all sectors of our economy that we must reduce carbon emissions to avoid the worst impacts of global warming and climate change we are being irresponsible to ourselves and succeeding generations. Such a price on carbon can unleash innovation and set an example for the rest of the world which still looks to the U.S. for leadership.

Gustaf Olsson

Yes, I think that you are still an environmentalist! I agree that it will be crucial to put a tax on carbon emissions. Furthermore, in all the development we have to remind ourselves, that it is our own lifestyle that determines the energy need.

The fear I have today is that if fossil fuel (and shale gas is still fossil fuel, even if it is better than coal) will keep the energy prices low, then the motivation to develop renewables may decrease. Therefore, as environmentalists, we persistently have to remind that renewables have to be developed. And, just because it will take a long time, we have to work today to make it happen.


Thank you for keeping me in ‘the club’. I will continue to GO as fast as my aged feet and brain will take me!