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Discussing Energy and Climate Change

October 7, 2014

Last week I had the opportunity to attend most of both days of the 2014 Natural Gas Symposium, hosted by the CSU Center for the New Energy Economy. In case you’re not familiar, CNEE is the center at CSU led by former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter – they do a lot of excellent work in the policy area, largely helping states understand and craft energy policy and regulation. They also put on a very good – and free – conference once a year. It’s well worth the time it takes to go.

One of the panels at this past conference focused on the interaction between the oil & gas industry and the citizens and communities of Colorado. Amid the relatively predictable elements of that exchange – dangers of fracking, well setbacks, methane release, and the like – there was one element in particular that got my attention, that I would like to follow up here.

That is the issue of climate change. The reason this issue stood out for me in last week’s conference is not so much that energy production and use is a major factor in climate change – we all know that. It was that the topic of climate change was presented as a show-stopper in the sense that bringing up the issue in the context of a discussion between the industry and communities is inherently nonproductive because it derails the process of building consensus on the practical, local issues like those I’ve listed above. As a result, it was postulated that we shouldn’t allow climate change into the discussion because no basis exists to talk about it.

Now, to be clear, I don’t totally disagree with that assertion. I do think that in many cases, organizations and individuals whose main (or even only) priority is climate change will disingenuously exploit more immediate community concerns (like setbacks, water, noise, etc.) to oppose oil & gas development, in service to a more long-term goal of shutting down fossil fuels altogether. I also think that climate change is a global issue that is not directly relevant to, or affected by, the specific issues that energy companies and communities typically need to resolve in order reach positive and productive agreements to develop critical oil & gas resources. (Hopefully, you will see GEM working productively in this very area over the next few months.)

Where I disagree is with the concept that there is no productive way to discuss climate change in the context of energy, at least at the global (if not the local) level. I think there is a way to have this discussion productively. It begins with a few areas where I think that there is broad consensus on all sides of the issue. I think the consensus is this:

  • All human productivity depends upon energy, in some amount, and in some form.
  • All energy production and use has some effect on our shared environment.
  • Our current global pattern of energy production and use is not sustainable forever.
  • Present energy technology is a “snapshot” of a moment in time that must be viewed in the context of steady, long-term technological evolution on both the demand and the supply side. There is probably no true “end state” for energy, as technology will continue to evolve.
  • At some point in the future, we must (and will) have greatly more sustainable energy systems, though we do not know with certainty now exactly what these systems will look like.
  • Between the energy present and the energy future, natural gas will play a significant role as a bridge fuel.

While there is probably somebody somewhere who will be the exception, I think that broadly speaking, any responsible member of either the energy or the environmental community (or both – they don’t have to be mutually exclusive) will generally agree with all of these statements.
In fact, if you analyze the statements, there is only really one that contains any significant uncertainty. This is the fifth bullet, with two major uncertainties:

  • What does real sustainability look like in terms of energy technology (solar, wind, nuclear, carbon capture, efficiency, new technology as yet unimagined, etc).
  • How long is the time frame for getting from Point A to Point B?

I think the first of these is a fun topic for discussion – in a lot of ways, it’s why we’re all in GEM – but it’s not really crucial to the issue of climate change. The reason I say this is that it presupposes a sustainable energy technology at some point in time, whatever it actually looks like in detail.

That leaves the time frame which, to my mind, is the only really serious discussion point. If we all agree that we have to reach a point of sustainability and that none of us can possibly know what the “final” energy mix looks like, then the only point of disagreement left is how long we can take to get there.

So I put to all of you that the way to discuss the issue of energy and climate change productively with all sides is to focus the discussion on time – are we looking at 10 years? 50? 100? Timing issues affect technology, infrastructure, investment, and the ultimate pace of climate change; a 10-year time frame is radically different from a 100-year time frame in every way, and I fully expect that there is passionate, even vehement, disagreement on this – but this is the right place for disagreement.

Framing the issue of energy and climate in terms of oil villains or environmental socialists does nobody any good and moves precisely zero distance toward actually addressing it. Setting it as a timing question, though, might actually get somewhere.

Here’s my question for all of you, and I hope it will generate some discussion on the LinkedIn site. What is the time frame for achieving energy sustainability? Why? What’s the technological, financial, and environmental balancing point?

What do you think?

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