Every columnist has his or her “go to” sources, people we rely on for their deep understanding of a particular subject, and a mode of thinking about that subject we find persuasive. For me, one such person is Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Levi believes in the power of facts. Though sensitive to the importance of dealing with climate change, he doesn’t indulge in the hyperbole you sometimes hear from environmentalists. And while he appreciates the economic import of fracking and shale gas, he isn’t afraid to call out the industry on its problems. Early in the fracking boom, he went to Pennsylvania to observe what drilling for shale gas was doing to communities — and came away believing that “it was going to stir up much more local controversy than many were assuming.” Which is exactly what happened.
For the latest issue of Democracy, a quarterly magazine focused on progressive ideas, Levi has written an article titled “Fracking and the Climate Debate,” which he described to me the other day as a kind of summing up of his views about the role of cheap natural gas and fracking in the fight against climate change.
There are many people, of course, who believe that natural gas shouldn’t have any role at all in the climate change fight; while it may emit half the carbon dioxide of coal, it is still a fossil fuel that will keep us from going all-in on renewable energy. And the methane that can leak from fracked wells is a potent greenhouse gas that can negate natural gas’ advantage over coal.
Most Read Opinion Stories
There are others who see natural gas as a panacea. They believe that so long as we keep increasing production of inexpensive natural gas — mooting the need to build more coal-fired power plants, and even making it possible to shut some down — then we will be doing more than enough to control carbon emissions. In his article, Levi says, in effect: You’re both wrong.
After recounting a little history — was it really only a half-dozen years ago that environmentalists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. were promoting natural gas as a “step toward saving our planet”? — Levi delves into the three rationales behind their abrupt change of heart. One is the disruption that fracking imposes on communities. The second is the methane problem. The third is the “rapid progress” being made by renewable energy, which many environmentalists believe makes further reliance on natural gas unnecessary.
Levi believes that appropriate rules by both state and federal governments can mitigate the first two problems. Indeed, he believes that the industry needs to be better regulated for its own sake; otherwise, people will continue to fear the worst. As for renewables, the hard truth is that if the country were to move away from natural gas, the big winner would be coal, not solar or wind.
But that doesn’t mean that those who cling to the “free-market fundamentalist dream that a thriving shale gas industry will make climate policy unnecessary” have got it right. On the contrary, Levi writes, “merely making natural gas more abundant may do little, if anything, to curb carbon dioxide emissions.” How can this be? The answer is that, although cheap natural gas is helpful in that it “shoves aside coal,” it also boosts economic growth (which means more emissions), and “gives an edge to industries that are heavy energy users and big emitters.” These two conflicting forces effectively cancel each other out.
The best way to maximize the good that shale gas can do, Levi concludes, is to make it a key component of an overall energy policy that is bent on driving down carbon emissions. The government could promote policies to move the country away from coal, “which accounts for three-quarters of carbon dioxide produced in U.S. electricity generation.”
And while he doesn’t say so explicitly, he does seem to see shale gas as a potential bridge to renewables: If the government enacted policies that “reward emission cuts” no matter what technology achieves that goal, then coal users would gravitate to natural gas, while natural gas users might well move toward renewables. Government would also have to encourage policies that “drive down the cost of zero-based emissions.”
My own belief is that shale gas has been a blessing for all kinds of reasons: It has given us a degree of energy security that we haven’t seen in many decades, and has been a key source of economic growth. And, no matter how much environmentalists gnash their teeth, it is here to stay. That’s why the responsible approach is not to wish it away, but to exploit its benefits while straightforwardly addressing its problems. Ideologues will never get that done. That’s why Michael Levi’s realism — and his pragmatism — are so critical to hear.