Truth or consequences in energy policy, part III
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This is the final installment in a three-part series. Part I is available here and part II is available here.

This is the third and final part in this "Truth or Consequences" series. The first column focused on clean coal technology and the necessity for investment, and the second focused on the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan and what it has been advertised as — and what it fails to do. So how do we pursue clean accessible energy in the most effective and impactful way?


Very recently, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates penned his annual letter, which was laser-focused on one topic: clean, accessible energy. The truth, as he described it, is that "time is not on our side" regarding carbon dioxide emissions, and to stop irreparable harm, we must eliminate the 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide we emit every year. He stated that it will take an "energy miracle" to accomplish the task. He also stated how critical it is to provide electricity to the 1.3 billion people today who don't have energy and are in need of our help. The consequences are enormous if we do not, as we can make the argument that providing energy is a matter of globally security in terms of political stability and people's welfare.

Gates also called for the government to play a "big role" in funding energy initiatives. What he did not call for was the elimination of fossil fuels. He recognized that inexpensive hydrocarbons will present huge challenges and opportunities to our society to curb emissions and provide electricity — and that science has "lots of miracles that it has provided," as he noted in an interview soon after releasing the annual letter.

The consequences of not pursuing the investment necessary to create scientific miracles is our challenge. But what steps are we taking, and are they relevant and impactful? Are we pursuing miracles or are we declaring victory by singling out the elimination of coal by passing legislation such the Clean Power Plan, while the rest of the world increases coal consumption 20 percent per year? Are we providing miracles by having the administration provide tax and investment credits of $14.5 billion and $9.3 billion, respectively, to existing wind and solar technologies in the most recent budget discussion — all to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 500 million tons per year?

Sounds like a lot, right? But it isn't. Five-hundred million tons per year is 7 percent of U.S. emissions, which is approximately 10 percent of global emissions. So, it's less than 1 percent globally! This is a miracle? For $25 billion of our tax dollars? Are we pursuing scientific advancement or simply subsidizing existing wind and solar and making our energy more expensive at home and less competitive globally? It's the latter, and it’s no miracle.

The Clean Power Plan is no miracle either, with even less impact to the environment at the expense of affordable energy. And let's just say it was impactful for the climate — we are not accepting societal responsibility by simply placing 40 percent of the plan's implementation on the backs of seven states that export a great deal of that energy to the other 43 states (the takers). And did I already say it wasn't meaningful climate legislation anyway? So why are we arguing about implementation?

So how does one envision what can be an energy miracle? Our Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University demands that we pursue energy sustainability by passing three tests in a simultaneous framework. First, energy must be available, reliable and secure — everything that defines "accessibility." Second, it must be cost-competitive and economically advantaged — it must be affordable. And finally, the energy must be explored, developed, transformed, delivered and consumed in a way that people and the communities in which we live can coexist – it must be environmentally responsible. We don't "love" coal or oil and gas, wind or solar, or any particular fuel or technology. What we love is the pursuit of energy sustainability and the technology that can provide it. There is no one answer, and the global landscape of resources and energy production is vastly different. Countries are growing and trying to step out of poverty. They need energy, not a morality lesson from the U.S. They need technology, not to be forced to adopt what people in the U.S. think is good for them.

Energy sustainability can only be accomplished through transformative technology and the miracle of science. Not bad policies, not subsidies to give something an advantage versus something else, not choosing one of the three tests in the framework above at the expense of the other two. We must pursue a miracle through science and technology.

Environmental responsibility goes beyond a singular focus on carbon dioxide emissions, as well. It is far too easy to make the environmental story one-dimensional. It's easier; it's a sound bite. But it's insufficient! We have other challenges as well as carbon dioxide:

1. Treating water in fracking at the site and eliminating wastewater disposal and the resulting seismic impacts. Developing advanced science and nanotechnology to solve the problem, not banning the development of "clean burning" natural gas. It's too easy and too naive to oppose fracking while applauding available and affordable natural gas.

2. Developing transformative technology for oil and gas exploration in unconventional and offshore exploration and production, computational mathematics, advanced materials of construction, and systems to ensure fail-safe operations. Don't ban oil and gas exploration and production; make it excellent and pass all three of the sustainability tests so we have public confidence in environmental responsibility. And at the same time, improve oil and gas productivity at a time when advanced technology is so critically important to sound economics.

3. Capturing carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants (and natural gas, as well) and using the carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery to improve productivity and the footprint of oil and gas exploration. And then storing that carbon dioxide in a geological formation safely and permanently to eliminate the emissions. Don't ban fossil-fueled energy and low-cost supply. Make it carbon dioxide emissions neutral by capturing the carbon dioxide. Our next barrel of oil can come from this existing, environmentally responsible enhanced oil production, not another new field.

The miracles will come from investing in everything: renewables, nuclear and fossil fuels. None of these energy sources is a clear winner for energy sustainability (the three tests), and if there were one, we would all rush to embrace it. But there is no silver bullet. Let's pursue the real energy miracle and invest in all that is necessary, relevant and impactful.

Let's ask and answer the tough questions, do the math, pursue real solutions and test them for relevance and impact and stop pounding our chests about our fuel of choice and "belief." Let's use our minds and wisdom and require our government and agencies to fully explore all aspects of energy sustainability. We deserve answers on cost and reliability, not to simply be fed just what we "need to hear" to promote an agenda.

Technology enables this pursuit of real energy sustainability and the clean, accessible energy Bill Gates calls for. Accessible, affordable and environmentally responsible. That's the energy miracle!

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.