Exploring the Rational Middle
The first event that I attended at the Aspen Ideas Festival was titled “Exploring the Rational Middle: How Do We Stay There in the Natural Gas Debate?” The panel was a powerhouse of energy experts: Gregory Kallenberg, Alexis Karolides, Russ Ford, and Richard Newell, and moderated by Thomson Reuters Chrystia Freeland. The inspiration for the title of the session comes from The Rational Middle Energy Series, which is a series of short films created by the team that produced the acclaimed documentary, “Haynesville: A Nation’s Hunt for An Energy Future.” During the session, we previewed two of the series’ films, “What’s at Stake” and “The Great Transition”. They touched on subjects such as where American energy comes from, renewables and their miniscule representation of total energy consumption, how natural gas can play a role in renewable energy and how patience and innovation can make major changes in our energy future.
Although the title of the session mentioned natural gas, that topic wasn’t really discussed much until the end of the session. The beginning portion focused mainly on our current consumption environment and the role that renewable energy will play in the future. 2050 was the key year that kept coming up as a target date. Alexis Korolides talked about the importance of keeping consumption constant over the next 40 years. This could be done by increasing the use and efficiency of renewables. Richard Newell (described by the panel as an “energy stud”) and Russ Ford weren’t so optimistic about being able to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels by 2050. But an interesting point that Newell made was about the unpredictability of the energy market. 10 years ago, nobody would have foreseen the incredible impact that natural gas has made in the US. So we need to be humble about predicting the future of energy.
When the topic finally shifted to natural gas, the discussion did indeed remain in the rational middle. Russ Ford, an EVP at Shell, was surprisingly candid. He talked about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and how the process isn’t really the issue. The real issue is the efficient and reliable construction of wells. If done correctly, he suggested that there will be little to no environmental impact. “I don’t want to let Methane get in the air, I want to sell it.” He also talked about the need for proper and efficient regulation, that isn’t being done by five different agencies. He even went as far as saying that he “isn’t afraid of regulation.”
In regard to the environmental impact of natural gas, there were a lot of interesting points made. Newell explained that while CO2 can last in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, methane will only remain for a decade or so. He suggested that the best “bang for your buck strategy is putting a dollar value on carbon emissions.” When talking about the role of renewable energy (like solar or wind), the main reason why they represent such a small portion of total energy consumption is because they are transient. But one of the solutions offered was a partnership between things like solar and wind and natural gas. When the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, natural gas can take over, because of its fast response time.
This session focused on a topic I found easy to relate to. I’ve often found myself in the middle of debates with friends and family who are pro-fracking and think that natural gas is the energy of the future, and those that are vehemently against this notion and go as far as petitioning for bans at a state level. So I literally have sat between people on both ends of the spectrum, arguing across me as I listen and choose the points that I find valid. This session, the ideas discussed, and the approach of finding a “rational middle” leave me optimistic about our ability to be successful in lowering our dependency on fossil fuels and improving our consumption and efficiency by 2050.