Energy solution must be an 'all of the above' strategy

The two cornerstones of our global society that are fundamental to our lives today and for our future are 1) the affordability and security of our energy and 2) environmental responsibility. The balance and harmony of these two are what comprise energy sustainability, the topic I will be contributing to in the coming year for The Hill.

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In my former role as assistant secretary of energy at the Department of Energy and my current position as executive director of Rice University's Energy and Environment Initiative, we are constantly challenged by this responsibility of energy sustainability in the utilization of fossil fuels. Our future will be determined by increasing energy requirements on a global basis for electricity, fuels and chemicals to meet a doubling of world demand by 2050. Fossil fuels will continue to be more than 80 percent of the world's fuel supply in 2050, as cited by the International Energy Agency, so it is not "if" we will be consuming coal, oil and natural gas, but "how." We must have a genuine "all of the above" energy strategy, and to do so, we must invest in fossil-fuel technology to ensure energy sustainability.

There are currently 1.3 billion people on Earth living in energy poverty. No electricity, no transportation — a nearly medieval existence. As the world's demand for energy doubles in the next 40 years, 90 percent of the new demand will be from developing nations. These nations will meet these demands with their most affordable and secure fuels, which are coal, oil and natural gas. This is a practical fact, not a political or policy choice in these countries. The question is, what policies and actions will the U.S. provide as global leadership to enable relevant, transformative and globally impactful marketplace and technology impacts? Our country has progressed dramatically over the past 150 years as our energy demands have increased several times over. We have taken on the challenges of our environmental footprint and created remarkable success through the development of the world's cleanest and most efficient coal-fired power plants, safest and most productive petrochemical facilities, and through transformative oil and gas exploration, bringing domestic oil and gas production in the U.S. to world-leading status. We did not accomplish this by turning away from fossil fuels, but by embracing the challenges and developing the world-leading technology to ensure energy sustainability. We are blessed in this country — as are many other parts of the developing world such as China and India — with fossil fuels that will transform our quality of life. It is much more affordable to society — more realistic in the transition of our energy future over the next 50-plus years — and impactful today for our environment to invest in technology that will ensure the sustainability of all of our fuel choices. Running away from our global challenge by over-investing in energy "winners" and declaring fossil fuels a "loser" is just not responsible leadership.

Just this past month, President Barack Obama has again brought forth an Energy budget request that includes a 30 percent reduction in coal program technology. At the same time, he is requesting a 22 percent increase in the renewables space. (These are percentages from a base fossil budget that is already five times smaller than that of renewable, making the disparity that much more dramatic.) The past five years from this administration have been methodical and systematic – and very consistent. Does it sound like "all of the above" to you? It has not been, nor is it now!

As current topics are discussed and analyzed, such as carbon dioxide and enhanced oil recovery, oil and gas fracking and domestic supply, liquefied natural gas and the opportunities for our domestic industries and for export, etc., we must be willing to discuss all the ramifications of affordability and put forth sound business analysis and principles, meet energy affordability and security goals and yet never compromise our environmental responsibility. We need informed and insightful leadership and transformative technology to aspire to both. That's how we may achieve energy sustainability.

McConnell is executive director of the Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University and a former assistant secretary of energy at the Department of Energy from 2011 to 2013.