Policy Expert Takes a Hard Look at Energy and Climate

  • Michael Levi says that natural gas surpassed coal as the leading source of domestic energy in 2011. The greater efficiency this gas-powered plant near Masontown, Pa. and others like it contributed to the rise of natural gas.

June 28, 2013

Rather than falling on either end of the spectrum that pits cautious environmentalists against eager advocates of drilling, Michael Levi walks down the middle.

The David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, Levi recently released a new book titled The Power Surge, which provides significant insight into his thoughts on energy and climate.

In this book, Levi states that all that was previously known about American energy seems to be in a state of transition. Observers will be hard-pressed to find another point in time, aside from the 1970s, where so much was going on at once.  The massive spike in the production of natural gas allowed it to overtake coal as the leading source of domestic energy in 2011.  The largest one-year increase in American oil production in history occurred just last year alongside a decline in consumption that almost mirrored the rise in output.  Also a doubling in renewable energy has been paralleled by drastically reducing costs over the past few years.

But among all of these leaps forward, Levi warns that one caveat must be taken into consideration: Despite so much going on at once, attention must still be paid to the big picture and each development’s impact on it.

“I mean, those are big changes. Any one of those would be big changes,” he says. “But to have all of those at one time? We need to step back, understand what’s happening in all of those areas and try to put some of the pieces together.”

Fracking

Levi covers fracking in length in The Power Surge, and takes a stance on the issue that doesn’t apply a blanket judgement to its instances.

Though he’s feels that America could benefit from it, for Levi, approval or disapproval of fracking must be measured on a case-by-case basis, as he feels that a sound judgement should evaluate factors such as the location of the fracking and who is doing it.

Levi cites Youngstown, Ohio, whose mayor he met with while writing his book, as an example of not only the benefits that fracking may bring, but also of the consequences of irresponsible practices.

The city experienced notable economic revitalization thanks to the employment opportunities brought in by fracking, recounts Levi. But the company in charge of the fracking failed to properly dispose of waste water in an injection well. This error went on to cause a 4.0 magnitude tremor that damaged the surrounding area, including the mayor’s home.

In Levi’s opinion, America’s current economic challenges make it appealing to “rush forward as fast as possible” with fracking and other energy developments, but “it’s more important to get things right.”

Climate Change

The strides being made in the production and utilization of alternative energy can’t be attributed to technological development alone, and according to Levi, the government’s must be accredited for the role that it has played.

However, in his opinion, there’s more to be done both technologically and governmentally.

Whether they come in the form of better renewable energy, the use of nuclear power or carbon capture and storage, Levi argues that there needs to be better options for zero-carbon electricity. Additionally, he says that even though its oil production is up, America requires better tools to cut its oil consumption. Levi feels that the government must play a role in both of these ventures.

Although the increased production of natural gas better equips the country to deal with the changing climate and the increased production of oil allows for greater security and prosperity, these two advancements alone won't solve the problems at hand, says Levi.

The critical thing to remember, as he sees it, is that each of these improvements bring their own respective benefits. In lieu of a hyper-focused fixation on just one advancement, Levi advises moving forward with all effective means of producing energy, especially those yet to be fully developed.

Energy

Levi anticipates that fossil fuels will continue to be the most cost-effective way to produce energy in the near future, but rejects what he describes as a “fatalistic attitude” toward their future. As he describes it, since such an attitude maintains that fossil fuels are currently the cheapest means of producing energy and may continue to be in the future, entertaining such thoughts may result in the underdeveloped use of alternative technologies.

“But if you have this fatalistic attitude...then you don’t invest in boosting alternative technologies that can give you a broader suite of options,” says Levi. “So I don’t buy into the fatalism.”

He’s careful to make it clear that he isn’t in favor of adopting rules that call for an instantaneous abandonment of fossil fuels. That, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no need to support developments in alternative energy.

But Levi doesn’t predict that the private sector will make any all of the “big bets” on tomorrow’s energy technology, and bases his prediction on the private sector’s record that shows it didn’t bet on the Internet, the radar or the jet aircraft early on.

Instead, Levi says the government must take some sort of action in what he calls the “hosts of different areas where government has an important role in pushing forward young technologies that provide broader social benefits.”

“If we can invest money in the military and make ourselves more secure,” says Levi, “we should also be thinking about how we invest money in different energy sources to make ourselves more secure as well.”