We Don’t Have to Choose Between Fossil Fuels and Green Energy

In a new book, Michael Levi argues that betting on a single energy path will only lead to failure

There's room for both fossil fuels and renewable sources in the United States' energy diet (© Richard Schultz / Corbis)

Michael Levi will tell you that there are two energy revolutions unfolding in the United States, one focused on fossil fuels and the other on alternative energy.

“We’ve seen oil production grow last year by the largest one-year increment since the beginning of the oil industry. Natural gas production hit a record high,” he says. “At the same time, renewable energy production has more than doubled in the last four or so years. Prices for renewable technologies have plummeted.”

So, which energy path should the country pursue?

In his new book, The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future, Levi advises us to drop this long-held attitude that we have to choose between the two. “Options are always good,” he says. The senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that the best way to secure a bright future is to advance both old and new forms of energy.

In your opinion, how divided is the United States when it comes to what energy path we should take?

Our representatives in Washington are certainly sharply divided in their views on which of these trends we should back and which ones we should try to stop—with a big block only excited about fossil fuels and another wanting to bet pretty much everything on cutting consumption and promoting new energy sources.

I think if you go out in the country at large, there is considerably more nuance. There are certainly pitched battles over individual projects and people with strong views, but you are more likely to find people who when presented with what is really going on that see the merits in a variety of different developments.

These lines were drawn decades ago. How did this debate take root?

I still find it amazing to reflect on how much of the current debate and how much of the way we think about energy today were formed 40 years ago in the aftermath of the first energy crisis and the first Earth Day. In a 1970s world, where modern globalization was just beginning, the Cold War was still raging and technology was fundamentally different, people really drew lines with one side fighting for what people call the “hard path”--more fossil fuel production and more nuclear power--and another camp pushing for what they call a “soft path,” more efficiency and alternative sources of energy. Both agreed that you had to pick, we couldn’t do both and that it was a stark choice.

After the 1970s, neither side really won, but they both managed to deflate the other’s biggest ambitions. By the end of the 1980s, you didn’t have expanded offshore drilling but you also had fuel economy standards for cars and trucks that had been eviscerated and a slashing of government support for clean energy technology.


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