Michael Levi – Fracking, Pipelines, and Science

May 13, 2013

A few months back on this show, we heard from Bill McKibben, the celebrated environmental writer and, more recently, leader of a mass movement around preventing climate change that has focused on blocking the Keystone XL pipeline.

McKibben makes a compelling case that our climate system is at dire risk. But many thinkers who fully accept the science of climate change nonetheless take a very different approach to climate and energy policy. And as someone who personally sees strengths on both sides of this question, today I want to feature one of them.

So today we feature one of the smartest and most thoughtful of these environmental moderates: Michael Levi. He’s author of the new book The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future—in which he talks favorably about natural gas drilling through “fracking” and even, yes, the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Michael Levi is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and director of the CFR program on energy security and climate change. He holds an MA in physics from Princeton University, where he studied string theory and cosmology, and a PhD in war studies from the University of London (King’s College).

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry from Monday, May 13th, 2013, on the show this week, Chris talks to energy security and climate change expert and environmental moderate Michael Levy about fracking, pipelines and science. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney Port of Inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. If you don’t already, you can follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. So a few months back in December, we had on the air Bill McKibben, the celebrated environmentalist writer and more recently the leader of a mass movement around preventing climate change, that is, focus on blocking the Keystone XL pipeline. McKibben makes a strong case that our climate system is at dire risk. But there are many thinkers who fully accept the science of climate change. But take a different approach to how we should deal with it and to energy policy. And as somebody who sees strengths on both sides of this question today, I want to feature one of them. So I’m here with Michael Levy. He’s author of the new book The Power Surge, Energy Opportunity and the Battle for America’s Future. It’s a book in which he talks favorably, a very favorably about natural gas, including through fracking and even maybe for or at least not against the Keystone XL pipeline. Michael Levy is the David Rubinstein senior fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, and he directs their program on energy security and climate change. He has an M.A. in physics from Princeton, where he studied string theory in cosmology. Sounds like many of our guests and APHC in war studies from the University of London King’s College. Michael Levy, welcome to Point of Inquiry. It’s good to be with you, Chris. It’s great to have you on. So I’m. Here we are. I’ve framed you as this energy moderate. Is that fair? What does that even mean? 

We do have a polarized energy debate, certainly in Washington and to a good extent in the country at large. It’s not new. It goes back decades. If you look at the aftermath of the first energy crisis in 1973 and the aftermath of the first Earth Day in 1973 and the years that followed, we developed a very polarized energy debate. Either you wanted more supply of fossil fuels or you wanted to curb demand and push alternatives. And there wasn’t much daylight in between. Much room to go forward. We had a quieter debate for a few decades after that. But it’s really ramp back up in the last few years, I think, spurred by a mix of political gridlock that’s got people frustrated and some pretty big changes in American energy, booming oil and gas production, falling oil consumption, plummeting costs for renewables alongside a doubling of renewable generation. We’ve got a very different scene. People are grasping for solutions and they’re going back to their old favorites of one side or the other. I don’t know that we want to pursue everything that’s out there, but there are a lot of gains to be had in the different things that are happening. 

So is this basically the President Obama approach to energy? I mean, seems like everything. 

I wouldn’t say that you should go for everything. The president talks about an all of the above strategy. I talk about a most of the above strategy. You want a broad portfolio. You want options. You want to be able to produce more oil when oil is expensive. You want natural gas to be able to push aside coal, strengthen the economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. You want zero carbon technologies, whether that’s renewable energy or nuclear power or carbon capture and sequestration, to give you way to decarbonize the power sector. And you want tools that you can use to transform our cars and trucks that we use less oil. Now, that’s not everything. And while we broaden the set of options, we also need to make sure we get rid of the really bad ones. We need to make sure we’re not driving more into coal, harming the climate in the process and causing local pollution. We need to make sure we don’t consume more oil than we need to because that hurts our national security, our economy and our environment. 

And by taking this stance, you also ensure that everybody hates you on both sides. 

Well, the long term goal is to have everyone loved me. But the short term outcome is for there to be a lot of opposition on the on the different sides. 

OK, so let’s let’s drill into some of these these topics specifically. I want remind listeners of Michael Levy’s new book, The Power Surge, Energy Opportunity and the Battle for America’s Future, is available through our Web site, point of inquiry, dot org fracking. Let’s talk about it. This is transforming America, American energy fast. And you went to some communities where it’s actually happening, but you didn’t end up with a kind of Matt Damon conclusion. 

When you go to communities where development is happening, you find out that that the debate is highly polarized. There aren’t a lot of moderates in communities where natural gas development is happening. People split along ideological lines. But more fundamentally, they split on how tied they are to the place on whether they own land or not, because that radically can change the economic impacts. I was visiting Warren Taylor, who owns a creamery in Athens County, Ohio. I’d seen him the day before at a rally in Columbus and anti fracking rally. I went downstate to visit him and while we were talking and he was explaining to me his experience with environmental problems in the area, his friend Bill Dicks, who owned the dairy farm that sells his milk for the creamery, drove up happenstance. 

And I basically stood there while they had a heated argument in the driveway about natural gas development. I suspect they’d had this argument before. They seemed to be pretty used to some of it. But what was clear was they both came from pretty similar ideological backgrounds. They both were worried about climate change. They both cared about the environment, but they had very different views on natural gas development, in large part because Warren Taylor was afraid about what would happen to his business. And Bill Dix was afraid about what was happening to the community without some source of economic stimulus to it. 

Okay, got it. What does the science say and all this does? I mean, the most known complaint is, does it pollute people’s groundwater? For the listeners of this show, we’re all about getting the science right for policy. So what is what is your assessment on that? 

And it’s not actually your field specifically like hydro geology, but so we tend to focus on the potential risks that look best on television, that sound the most exciting and ignore sometimes the ones that the science tells us are actually real problems. So when it comes to pumping, fracturing fluids underground, you’ve got a pretty strong seal between where you’re doing the fracking and the water table. So that’s not where I would be putting my energy. There there’s some issues in making sure wells are case properly so that methane doesn’t migrate from the gas into people’s water. So you don’t get these flaming tap water scenes that have become so famous from Gasland. But if you really want to drill down on where the serious risks are, I think you end up in three basic areas. One is, do you dispose properly of the water that is produced when fracking happens that think stuff in it? 

It’s got tricky stuff in it, not just what went down, but it brings back up a lot of icky stuff. And you’ve got a problem if you take that and you put it in a stream somewhere rather than processing it properly. You’ve also had some problems arising from disposing of it sloppily in what are called injection wells, injecting underground in places that have been earthquake prone. I met with the mayor of Youngstown. Who, Youngstown, Ohio, who had actually sponsored ordinances in favor of fracking. And then there was an earthquake nearby triggered by an injection well and damaged his house. He said to me, you know, I’m not an anti fracking guy. I’ve sponsored these things in favor of fracking. But I’ve put a moratorium on this because if I want earthquakes, I would move to California. So we’ve got to do these things properly. The second is air emissions. The reality is that people see very clearly when they don’t have clean air. And while a single well may not be devastating for local air, if you have a lot of industrial activity in an area and you’re burning diesel and generators to power, your equipment makes they are dirty. People don’t like that and people shouldn’t like that. So, again, straightforward thing to deal with. The biggest environmental issue in some ways around fracking, though, is how it transforms communities and towns. It’s tough to sit in a town around natural gas and tidal development without seeing of time of day when massive numbers of trucks are coming through and there’s an influx of people really shaking things up. Good for some people, some people getting jobs, tougher, tougher, other folks. And it’s all pervasive and you need to manage that impact. I talk at the beginning of the book about an experience in Ohio where I had just visited a fracking, said I was a bit of a bit of a daze. I think I passed someone on the right. You’re not supposed to do that in Ohio. I get pulled over by a cop first thing he says, are you with the pipeline company? And that’s the natural question to ask, because everyone seems to be with the pipeline company these days. 

Got it. So it’s just it’s almost the politics are more local than national IDL ideological. 

I can think I come from a foreign policy world where it’s been a big evolution the last decade for foreign policy people to think about how national developments in the United States interact with what happens around the world. So diving into this, going out in the country and seeing not just that, but how national politics and decisions interact with local dynamics is really eye opening. And the local drivers here, whether it’s on fracking or clean energy development, are huge. You talked about the Matt Damon movie that was originally written as a sketch of a piece about wind turbines. They discovered that it’s really tough to film a movie around wind turbines because they’re too noisy. 

Mm hmm. So does it make climate change worse? I mean, there’s some people who are saying that all this methane is leaking out and it’s a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So actually, there’s no benefit here. What is your take on that? 

So we need to split the climate question into two pieces. One is, is gas better than coal? And that’s about methane emissions. The other is what does abundant natural gas due to the energy system into its transformation over time? Because we ultimately need to get to a near zero carbon energy system. On the methane front, it’s clear that we have methane emissions associated with gas development. Natural gas is mostly methane, so it’s just leaking out somehow. It leaks out. People have guesses as to where leakage is coming from. I suspect that as we see better work and Environmental Defense Fund is doing some great work. We’ll find that a lot of the problem comes from local distribution systems where the gas gets taken into people’s homes, not from the wells themselves. But what you’ve had is an inflamed public debate. You had a couple papers that have been repeatedly attacked, I think, for very solid reasons, claiming that we know that gas is worse for climate change than coal because there are huge amounts of methane leaking into the atmosphere. I left the physics world a while ago. I was actually drawn back in last year and wrote a couple of peer reviewed papers in one of the geophysics, Germinal one in a climate journal on the methane question, specifically doing data analysis on field on field observations to really try and understand what was going on. I came away from that, convinced that the that the work we have out there already does not show us that we have dangerously high levels of methane emissions, but that we still have opportunities to reduce them. That should be a should provide us a benefit that exceeds the cost of pursuing it. So I think we focus on getting that done. But it shouldn’t distract us from the bottom line that natural gas is better for climate change than coal. The bigger question is, what does all this gas due to our ability to transform the energy system? Right now, gas is mostly displacing coal rather than zero carbon energy. But what happens over time? What happens 10, 20 years out when cheap gas is blocking the entry of zero carbon energy? And as I see it, the biggest risk here is actually political is that we get complacent, that we tell ourselves climate change is too hard, we can’t pass legislation. Natural gas will save us. Let’s focus on something else with our lives. It turns out that if you do that, if you don’t put the policies in place, you are not going to get close to zero carbon energy system, or at least you run a very high risk that you won’t. 

This is why let’s call them the activists. I mean, you describe them in the book is clearly they’re environmentalists who are skeptical even of gas because they think we need to go to zero carbon. And they feel a really high level of urgency with. Why they say that this is why I can see their point. Because if you develop natural gas to such a gigantic extent in the next 10, 20 years, then you’re gonna have this whole infrastructure and all these companies making lots of money who are not going to want to change it. They’re going to be used to doing what they’re doing. So to then come along and say, no, now it’s time for solar, because now finally, solar can power up a significant percentage of all the energy that we need. They’re not going to want to stop it. 

So let’s get the counterfactual straight first. The counterfactual is not solar versus nothing. It is zero carbon energy versus coal. And as we’ve seen for many years, coal is pretty darn entrenched. So unless you think that natural gas is going to be even more entrenched than coal, if your focus is on moving to zero carbon energy, you shouldn’t see that much of it at least have a downside. At the political level. I’m moving to gas. The second important dimension is economics. Natural gas fired power plants are relatively cheap and the main cost is the fuel. So while it takes a lot of push, a big push to get zero carbon energy to edge aside coal, so shut down coal plants, it takes less to get natural gas plants eventually either shut down or retrofitted to use carbon capture and sequestration. 

OK, so doesn’t a lot of this also. 

Really turn on how much you think the climate issue is impending disaster. I mean, in the book, you sort of say that the Bill McKibben, James Hansen, these folks who have rallied behind the number 350, which is parts per million of carbon dioxide atmosphere which have blown past as we’re having this conversation, are basically at 400. 

I mean, your base, you’re saying that they’re too worried, aren’t you? 

What I’m saying is two different things. First, 350 may be an important threshold out there. I don’t think that’s been established in any particularly strong way. We need to look, as I do in the book, at multiple threshold. So understanding what we do to reduce risks if there are big problems out there are 350 at 450 at 550. 

Fundamentally, if you think you need to get the world to 350, you should be talking seriously about burning biomass and plants that bury that carbon dioxide underground so that you can suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. You should be talking about air capture of carbon from the atmosphere. So I think if we’re gonna have a serious discussion about 350, it’s very different from wind versus solar versus natural gas. It’s a totally different world. The other thing is that we don’t actually know where the various thresholds are. So to basically say we should go all in on something that might have a small chance of getting us radical transformation. But that at the expense of really lessening our chances of of a moderate transformation. So it’s zero carbon or bass. We shouldn’t bother with substituting natural gas for coal because everything else is distinctions without a difference, I think misses a lot of the point because it may turn out that the real important thresholds, around 450 or 470 or wherever you want. 

And we don’t know. That’s the you don’t know. And so you want to you want to reduce your exposure to risk as you go. But sort of fixating on hard lines and saying anything that gets you over this line is not worth it at all. These are all distinctions that don’t matter. We should just maximize the odds that we get below a particular threshold and forget about risk management. Beyond that, I think, is imprudent. 

OK. So one more thing before we go. The Keystone, which is the one that is the most the flashpoint right now, nuclear. You know a lot about this, I think. And so we have a lot of. And we’ve had shows about this in the past. We had a post Fukushima issue. So. Where’s your. Where do you stand on who’s being irrational here? I mean, you know, you get a lot of at least some of the more old school environmentalists are completely anti-nuclear and they claim that it kills a heck of a lot of people. I mean, what’s going on with that? 

Well, the most rational folks right now are the investors who are deciding not to put money into nuclear power because you can’t make money on it. And that’s not because natural gas is cheap. This was true several years ago when it looked like coal would be dominant. So right now, nuclear is not a strong economic option in the United States. It’s a different story in some other parts of the world. But in the United States week option, what would change that? What would change that would be serious policy. That takes into account the fact that other power plants put a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and nuclear power doesn’t. If you did that, I think you’d see changing economics for nuclear power. Then we would have to confront the other tough issues. Then we would have to confront safety seriously. We would have to confront waste disposal and we would have to, depending on our fuel cycle approach, deal with proliferation issues. I think those are manageable. And they’re tough. But it takes us back to the local issues, I think. I think nuclear has an important it has to be an important option as part of a zero carbon future as a policy analyst. I live in New York City and, you know, am I thrilled about Indian Point Power Plant once in a while? I don’t necessarily feel so great about it. So you think differently at a national level and the local level, understand? 

I want to remind listeners again, the Michael Luv’s new book, The Power Surge, Energy Opportunity and the Battle for America’s Future, is available through our Web site Point of inquiry dot org. 

So let’s talk about tar sands oil. Now, you admit in the book it produces a quote between five and 15 percent greater emissions than most oil. But then you say that’s small beer in the grand scheme of things. That’s what this is being fought over the. 

This is being fought over symbolism and it’s being fought over a decision that people say and the president can make that will show his stripes on climate change. I think you can. Support the Keystone pipeline or at least allow it to go forward and not show somehow that you don’t care about climate change, because the reality is that the Keystone pipeline doesn’t end up having a big impact on global climate change. First, we’re talking about five to 15 percent of incremental emissions on top of total oil. All the tar sands oil does have all the tar sands. 

Oil has spectacular emissions. All the coal in the world has enormous emissions. A lot of very big things that will take several thousand years to burn through have very high emissions. 

The reality is that abundance or lack thereof is not what’s going to make the difference on climate change. What’s going to make the difference is our decisions on what we use. So if you drill down on the substance on Canadian oil production or American oil production, you find that for the most part, when you increase supplies from this part of the world, we expect others elsewhere in the world to curb either their production or to curb the growth in their production. So the prices don’t get affected much. If I’m a Saudi Arabian policymaker, I want to keep prices pretty high so that I can fund my budget. So I’ll offset greater production here with lower production there. And what that means is that the ultimate impact on climate of boosting oil production in this part of the world isn’t that large. Now, the flip side of that is because there’s this offsetting cut in production from elsewhere, you also don’t get a big impact on prices. So for the same reason that people say that a lot more U.S. oil production probably won’t push the price of oil and gasoline way down. You also have to conclude that it won’t have that big of an impact on climate. Now, if you turn this around and say what will happen if we really get our arms around oil demand as part of a serious strategy on climate change, then I think you stop producing a lot of this oil, not because you’ve gone and blocked a pipeline or said no to a particular development, but because the price of oil is too low to make that worthwhile. If we get to a world where we’re tackling climate, seriously, the oil sands issue will go away. But if we make the oil sands issue go away, it won’t get us particularly far in dealing with climate change. 

So you do not see the value or do you of them making a point? 

I mean, I think it’s important for people to make a point. It’s important to have things you can rally around. I do worry about the hollowing out of the middle when it comes to climate change. 

When you talk about why did everything in America’s got a hold of middle? 

It’s true. But a lot of things in America aren’t all that well these days. So they go to it’s not clear that you want to follow that pattern. 

I understand the idea of making space for action. But I do think it’s important that there be a credible middle. I also think that it’s important if you want to really drill down on climate change over the long haul, that you do it in a way that can bring as much Buy-In as possible. 

You had on cap and trade ill-Fated as it was a lot of the oil companies standing off and not going after it because they were in a coalition with a lot of the environmental groups. You had unity with the labor unions focusing on it. These are some pretty important forces in American society and they’ve been pushed away from this most recent effort because the recent effort has in a lot of ways, run against them. So there’s room for a lot of different approaches. But I worry when it becomes with us or against us, if you don’t oppose the pipeline, you must think climate change isn’t really a big deal because the two of those really don’t have to go together. 

So what if you care about climate change? As you know, a lot of our listeners, do we have some that actually don’t even buy it? And you don’t think that President Obama should block the pipeline? I don’t think he’s going to. What can you hope for from him? Because it’s not like he’s been a crusader. You know, it’s understandable, the disappointment. So what can what can he reasonably do? And is it going to satisfy anybody or is it going to achieve anything important? 

I’m not sure who it’s going to satisfy, but I think he can do things that are important. One of the most powerful things that was done during the first term was new fuel economy regulations on cars and trucks. And that’s going to lead to reduce oil consumption and also lower emissions in our transport sector. He can do something similar on existing power plants through the Clean Air Act Authority that he has. Now, this isn’t that easy. Traditionally, we thought of Clean Air Act Authority as something where you can get people to put a different widget on their power plant. And that would mean making your coal plants a little bit more efficient. So take some creativity to figure out how to use existing laws in order to drive real transformation in the energy system. I think they can do that if they if they really spent some time trying to craft these properly. They did a rule for new power plants that’s had some problems and it’s been sent back and they’re now having to redo it. So they need to do it right. So he has leverage there. I think in the longer run, you do, though, need serious action from Congress. I don’t think there’s any way around it. We’re in some ways eating the seed corn from environmental rules that were put in place decades ago. And we’re trying to use them in any way we possibly can to deal with a very different set of problems. So the Clean Air Act, you can take a bit of a bite into climate change, but ultimately you need some kind of legislation that captures a broader part of the economic system and that does it in a flexible way so that the economy can actually deliver. In other cases, people are using old environmental rules to do things like try and block pipelines or stop fracking as a way of tackling climate change. And in that case, the rules are so ill suited to the climate problem that you don’t actually get meaningful purchase on it. So I do think we actually need new tools if we want to be able to accomplish new things. 

So when you look at this play out, I mean, and you’ve talked a lot about market forces and what’s going to happen. A lot of it willy nilly. I mean, do you feel that technology itself is going to carry is a substantial way toward the solution? 

I think you need technology to enable markets and policy to really drive things toward a solution. I don’t think technology saves you from having to make political decisions. The reality is that coal plants are cheap, that traditional cars work really well, and gasoline is a great dense, portable fuel. And it’s really tough to fight these. And a lot of the biggest innovations we’ll see will affect multiple energy sources. The same advances in materials and computing that allow you to do cheaper solar have enabled you to do more fracking. So if you think that you’re going to get clean technology to somehow race ahead of others, you might get lucky, but you probably shouldn’t bet on that. The way I like to think about it is that if you bring down the cost of technology, you enable policy to make bigger breakthroughs. We wouldn’t be able to pursue these strong fuel economy rules if we didn’t have ever cheaper options for more efficient cars and trucks. And you can see how consequential these policy decisions are. When I was working on the book. I visited a factory outside of Pittsburgh. It was an area that used to make a lot of glass. It had declined. They were now making these big mirrors for four solar installations. They’d started building the factory on the assumption that there would be strong U.S. policy. And when I got there, the factory was half completed because there wasn’t this strong U.S. policy. And so there wasn’t the demand for the mirrors. And when I asked where they were shipping the mirror stacked pallets on the side, these are big, heavy mirrors. They said we’re shipping these to India because India has a national solar program that’s creating demand. Now, if we didn’t have relatively inexpensive solar technologies, India couldn’t afford to have that program, but inexpensive technologies by itself wouldn’t have delivered. 

One more reminder to listeners, Michael Levy’s new book, The Power Surge, Energy Opportunity and the Battle for America’s Future, is available through our Web site. 

Point of inquiry, dot org. So we’ve covered you. You have an incredible mastery of energy policy, which is a hard thing, in my opinion, to have mastery of, given the necessity of knowing a lot about science and economics. 

OK, fine. 

The problem is that America isn’t moderate like you. It’s either in one extreme or the other. So like being rational, how does that help? 

We need to have an idea of what the best way to proceed is. That doesn’t mean that technocrats are going to sit down and figure out the best way forward and then move ahead with it. But it’s important for people making policy to have some touchstone that they can at least measure real world progress against. We have had times when we have made progress on multiple fronts in sensible ways. We actually had real serious energy legislation in 2005 and in 2007, we had two presidential candidates in 2008 fighting over whose cap and trade plan was better. Even when you go back to the mid 70s before these intense debates set in, we within about a year opened up Alaskan oil production and put in the first fuel economy standards on cars and trucks. Now, was there one guy sitting in one place who said this is the perfect plan and we’re going to follow through? No, but were we able to actually make serious progress on different fronts? We were. So I think ultimately that’s how you have to move forward. And some of it will be dirty political dealing, not dirty, but complicated political dealing. I hope it takes. 

That’s a.. I hate that politics. People need to make trades. People need to say, I don’t like everything that I’m getting. But if I look at the whole thing, what I’m getting that’s good is a lot better than what’s coming. That’s bad. And not if one has to agree on what’s good and bad. 

They just need to agree that they are moving forward as a result of what’s happening overall. 

OK. Michael, thank you. I think that this has been incredibly illuminating and it’s about time that we actually did a show about this topic, which we’ve kind of stayed away from. So thank you so much. 

And thanks to our listeners for tuning in for this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about this show, you can visit us at point of inquiry dot org. You can send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry dot org, or you can send them to us through Twitter at point of inquiry and you can comment on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry are not necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Point of inquiry is produced by Adam, Isaac and amrs New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. 

I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney