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)

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You believe that these two energy revolutions should happen simultaneously, and that the United States should foster both old (fossil fuels) and new (alternative) energy sources.

In the right way. So long as prices are high, we should be taking advantage of the opportunity to produce more oil, if we do it responsibly. But, at the same time, we should be cutting the amount of oil that we consume. We should be exploiting the opportunity to produce natural gas, use that to help the economy and cut greenhouse gases by shifting away from coal. But, at the same time, we need to be promoting zero-carbon energy sources so that we can genuinely tackle our climate problem over time.

When I look out at this world, I ask a few basic questions. First, is there any one [energy] source out there that will solve all of our problems? The answer is no. The second is: If we pursue one of these sources, does it mean that we can’t pursue one of the others? The answer is no. And the third is: Is there something about pursuing any one of these sources that fundamentally conflicts with how we think about what’s appropriate in American society and what we think is right when it comes to the relationship with government and society? Again, I think the answer is no. So, if everything shakes out that way, that says to me that there are opportunities in each of these areas and we should be pursuing them.

Can you give an example or two of how we might embrace both?

If we could get long-distance infrastructure in place while still making sure to take good care in protecting the local environment, that would benefit clean energy supporters--because you could move solar power from sunny places to cities where people need electricity--and fossil fuel producers, because you could move oil and gas from where they are produced to places where they can be processed. 

Another place where both sides could gain is if we adopted regulations that encouraged the simultaneous build-out of renewable energy and natural gas to fill in when the renewable energy doesn’t deliver.

What is it going to take to get other people to think this way?

Fundamentally, people need to be willing to focus on the upsides rather than the downsides. Any strategy that pursues gains on all fronts is going to have downsides. Pursuit of oil and gas development entails local environmental risks. More oil production is not helpful for climate change. Renewable energy costs more than other sources of fuel, and the most efficient cars and trucks also are expensive to pursue. So, if you focus on any one of these pieces by itself, you don’t pursue it in moderation and you fixate on the downsides, you will come to the conclusion that none of this is worth doing anything about. What you need to do is put it all together and see that when you pursue all of these, you have big net gains for the economy, for security and for the environment. 

Currently, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere—a common measure of climate change—sits at 400 parts per million, the highest level in at least 3 million years. What do you think is an attainable goal? 

As a matter of practical economics and technology, keeping ourselves below 450 parts per million in the atmosphere is an attainable goal. As a matter of politics and international cooperation, I am far from sure that it is.


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