In the vastly complex and controversial world of energy production, perhaps the only thing people can agree on is that there is little consensus on what the United States’ industrial picture should look like in the future.
On Wednesday, in one of the opening forums at the Aspen Ideas Festival, four people — ranging from a Shell vice president to a local energy-efficiency expert — tried to change that argumentative formula.
Panelists on the natural gas forum, titled “Exploring the Rational Middle,” discussed how to broach the perception that the debate is split simply between the “drill, baby, drill” mantra and those who oppose any drilling at all.
The United States and Canada in the past decade have found fields of natural gas so massive that they could in theory end our nation’s dependence on unstable foreign sources of energy like oil, said Russ Ford, executive vice president of onshore gas for Shell Upstream Americas.
“We’re just beginning to understand the benefits of the natural gas reserves discovered in North America,” he said.
Ford said his company, among other public relations efforts, tries to “disabuse some myths” about energy extraction. He called the controversy over hydraulic fracking, a process in which highly pressurized fluid is pumped into the earth to release natural gas, a “red herring.”
The drilling holes used in the process, if properly designed, minimize the environmental risks that opponents cite, Ford said. Those risks include ground water contamination, air pollution, surface spills and the health effects related to those events. Some residents on both the Front Range and Western Slope have demonstrated the levels of flammable methane, the main hydrocarbon in natural gas, in their tap water by lighting it on fire straight out of the faucet.
“I think the fundamental analysis of the issue is, could it be unsafe? Yes. Does it have to be unsafe? Absolutely not,” Ford said after the forum. “Literally millions of wells have been fracked. It’s all in the well construction.”
Alexis Karolides of the Basalt-based Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), though, said that her think tank is committed to switching the country completely from fossil fuels like natural gas, coal and oil to renewable energy by 2050.
This will involve completely rethinking everything from how communities and transportation systems are laid out to retrofitting thousands of buildings in cities to make them more energy efficient, she said.
Natural gas could be an excellent bridge between fossil and renewable fuels, but she said she worried that too much stock is being put into it as the single solution. While a cleaner fuel, it still produces methane, Karolides said.
Richard Newell, an energy professor at Duke University, said he doubted whether the United States could be completely weaned off of fossil fuels by 2050.
While the nation has technology that can, and does, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the challenge is whether those advances are enough to bring the costs lower than those involved in renewable sources, Newell said.
Filmmaker Gregory Kallenberg said the lack of middle ground on energy issues is quickly running up against the fact that energy needs for the planet’s 7 billion people will double within the next decade or so.
He showed two short films at the forum, “What’s at Stake?” and “The Great Transition.” Kallenberg said he and his crew accepted Shell’s funding of the films with trepidation. The filmmaker agreed with the caveats that he retain editorial and creative control, and he said he hoped the films were balanced.
“People don’t know where their energy comes from,” one man says in “What’s at Stake.”
Kallenberg said he made the films because the polarized sides are “hurling insults at each other” instead of trying to forge a clean energy future.
He also summed up another stance most can come to consensus on: “Energy is a complicated issue,” he said.