Obama Adviser: Keep-It-in-the-Ground Movement ‘Unrealistic’

Nikola Nastasic/

President Obama’s top science adviser on Monday said natural gas will be an important bridge fuel for decades and called the “keep-it-in-the-ground” movement unrealistic.

His gradual, modest vision for moving away from fossil fuels differs greatly in tone from some more liberal environmentalists.

The administration is dedicated to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but it also believes natural gas has a role to play in the fight against climate change, said John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, at the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s annual conference.

“The notion that we’re going to keep it all in the ground is unrealistic,” Holdren said. “We are still a very heavily fossil-fuel dependent world.”

In addition to the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels, Holdren pointed to natural gas’s role in helping cut greenhouse gas emissions, at least when compared with coal. Holdren said natural gas will be a net positive, in terms of cutting emissions, for the next “30 or 40 years.”

“I subscribe to the view that natural gas is a very helpful bridge fuel to a much lower emissions future,” Holdren said.

Holdren’s comments come as natural gas seems to be in President Obama’s crosshairs. The Environmental Protection Agency released a final rule in May regulating new sources of methane emissions from natural gas systems, and it has started developing a much broader rule for existing sources. While the public discussion on climate change tends to focus on carbon emissions, Obama has turned more attention toward methane, which is emitted less prolifically but packs a stronger punch in terms of greenhouse gas effects.

Holdren said the upcoming methane regulations could cut a substantial amount of emissions, but they would only affect “a relatively small number of bad actors.” That’s an especially positive viewpoint compared with the industry’s complaints that the regulations are unnecessary and costly.

Holdren said he thinks the United States can outpace the EIA’s projections on renewable energy growth. The agency’s baseline case scenario calls for a 46.8 percent increase in renewable energy consumption from 2012 to 2040, although that projection doesn’t account for the effects of the Clean Power Plan or the Paris climate agreement.

But even if the U.S. beats that projection, Holdren said renewables alone won’t do enough to cut emissions. It’s also important to develop carbon-capture technologies and other tools for making fossil fuels more efficient, he said.

“When I look at the future of energy technology, I am looking at advanced technologies for fossil fuels, as well as expansion of nuclear, renewables, and of course heavy emphasis on improving efficiency,” Holdren said.

He said the U.S. also needs to find a solution about how to store spent nuclear fuel in a central location. Otherwise, no communities will want nuclear plants because they will simply become fuel repositories, he said.

Holdren’s speech was relatively friendly toward fossil fuels, considering that the administration has made climate issues a major focus of Obama’s final year in office. Nevertheless, Tesoro Corporation CEO Gregory Goff offered a scathing rebuke of the administration in his speech, which came directly after Holdren’s. Goff criticized the White House’s “all-out war” on fossil fuels, which he said has “reached tsunami proportions.” He added that Obama has engaged in “excessive rulemaking premised on contrived legal authority.”

Holdren and Goff weren’t on stage at the same time, but Goff’s speech served as a standard rebuttal to the administration’s usual talking points against fossil fuels. Obama vowed in his State of the Union address in January to “change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.”

Morning Consult