In case you were thinking of it, I wouldn't recommend trying to stump Matt Wald, the national energy reporter for the New York Times, with an energy question. It's not like I tried, but as we prepared for his Scaling Green Communicating Energy Lecture Series appearance, we found that he'd written 5,557 stories for the New York Times, mostly on energy. That's actually an undercount -- he started with the paper in 1974, but you can only search back to 1980 on nytimes.com.
Even though he's impeccably gracious, it's best to sit back and ask the open-ended questions that enable a tour of the perspective, insight and memories from 30-plus years of energy reporting.
That's not to say that the packed room of cleantech communicators liked everything it heard from him.
You get the impression that Wald's not impressed with the ability of wind and solar (particularly rooftop PV) to significantly displace fossil fuels:
"You can use wind ... to replace the output of a natural gas plant, but you can't use it to replace the gas plant itself ... you'll have to have the natural gas plant sitting there doing nothing anyway, sitting there on standby."
In addition, Wald asserts that wind production is negatively correlated with demand, and that "this is not a way to run an energy system." To get renewably generated electricity to population centers, Wald argues, we'll "need a different [structure] of government" that will allow new transmission to be built expediently.
There was, of course, the topic of cheap natural gas, which is changing many things. In Wald's view, "the national energy market is not quite national." Instead, "it's the competitive energy market, what's colloquially known as the 'de-regulated market'; that's why nuclear plants are being built in the 'regulated' market." Wald makes the case that the market "is set up to favor the cheapest short-term available power," which means it is "set up to favor natural gas." As a result, "it's not economically rational to do the right thing environmentally," and "[cheap gas] is the reason."
We think gas' economics have changed so quickly in large part because of fundamental distortions in the market. The industry has been allowed to "frack" at will, without providing anything like an insurance policy if it contaminates our drinking water supplies.
Incredibly, the government used our money to pay for the R&D on these practices, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Over the past few months, we called, emailed and ultimately requested by using the Freedom of Information Act the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy to find out what they've done with our money -- that the private sector apparently couldn't have done, of course. In response, they boasted that the DOE had "played a historic role in helping to advance the technology that is making shale gas production possible."
In other words, the fulcrum practice enabling the cheap gas revolution was underwritten by taxpayers. As Matt Wald himself puts it: "[There's] a technology where the government made early, risky investments ... and used it to slash costs dramatically ... it's natural gas."
The expressed assumption by the gas industry and trusting (complicit?) government officials has been that fracking gas companies can pierce, dump above and inject below our water supplies a toxic mix of chemicals supplies and never screw up. That's not a bet we like the industry taking on our behalf, especially when nobody seems to know if it's possible to uncontaminate aquifers once they're polluted.
I asked Wald about his views of the collective gamble with our drinking water. Here's what jumped out at me:
"...it's not clear to me that we've had pollution of drinking water supplies. ... I don't know, [water pollution from fracking] would be fairly nasty. I'm not sure that's going to happen. ... And the science of this is not clear to me." [Emphasis added]
If the science isn't clear to one of the most experienced, discerning reporters in the energy press corps, we think that's a problem. Only if the science is absolutely clear, convincing and totally reassuring that frackers will protect water supplies should they be allowed to act like they will do so. And that's just not the case right now.
So it's true that cheap natural gas is changing a lot of things. Among those, unfortunately, is the amount of available clean water, a resource that is already -- well, drying up.
Even in the face of Wald's commanding knowledge of the energy industry, our question remains: Shouldn't the burden of proof -- and the associated costs -- be placed on those advocating a practice that hinges on never screwing up a crucial resource? And would "cheap" gas still be cheap if the industry had to be able to pay to clean up the mess it seems to be making of our water supplies?