Of Energy Wars And Energy Revolutions: Michael A. Levi's 'The Power Surge'

06/24/2013 10:40 am ET | Updated Aug 24, 2013

Describing the contentious and often contradictory battle over energy policy in the United States, Allen L. Hammond, writing for The New York Times, noted:

The contention is not just over specific elements of technology. The two sides differ over whether energy salvation lies in conservation or expanded production; in renewable or depletable energy resources; and in small-scale, decentralized energy sources or in large, centralized systems.

If you've spent any amount of time staking out a position of your own on the nagging energy debates that have so polarized the nation of late -- hydraulic fracturing, or fracking; nuclear power; renewables; shale oil; tar sands; coal -- you'd be forgiven for thinking Hammond's observation was a recent one. It was, in fact, published more than 35 years ago, and it is one of the many precious nuggets of insight unearthed by Michael A. Levi in his new book, The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future.

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"Energy needs to be tackled more on its own merits," Levi says, "and less as a way of sending signals about ideological positions."

Levi, a senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations and one of the country's most pragmatic energy experts, combines a researcher's analytical detachment with a journalist's flair for on-the-ground storytelling to take ordinary readers into the impassioned and often ideologically warped debate over how best to keep the nation -- and the world -- industrious, comfortable, mobile and well lighted. It's a place where politics, economics and technological derring-do collide to produce what are often unexpected -- and perhaps even unwelcome -- outcomes, and where discussions of American energy policy in particular long ago became stylized stand-ins for larger political and philosophical disagreements.

Today, Levi explains, rapid and revolutionary changes in the nation's energy portfolio are once again afoot:

• Vast new stores of previously inaccessible or economically prohibitive oil and gas are positioning the U.S. to become a fossil fuel juggernaut.
• Generous private investment and government support is driving unprecedented development of renewable resources.
• And looming over it all is the now very clear evidence that our energy decisions are inextricably linked with the planetary thermostat. The timing and impacts remain frustratingly uncertain, but we continue to emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases -- virtually all of it arising from the use of oil, coal and gas -- at our own risk.

What will all the competing pressures -- which now include the rapidly industrializing and energy-hungry economies of China and India and the rest of the developing world -- ultimately yield? Levi hedges his bets, and it's likely that some stakeholders, particularly those climate activists who have thrown themselves most fully into efforts to block major fossil fuel projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, will find his sober, even-handed analysis incommensurate with what they see as a planetary emergency.

News that President Barack Obama is preparing this week to unleash tough new greenhouse gas restrictions on the nation's existing power plants as part of a larger climate agenda will also put some of Levi's forecasting to the test. But for anyone keen to explore and understand all of the potential combinations and outcomes of our energy wars, The Power Surge provides a compelling and timely primer.

I reached out to Levi over the weekend with a few questions about his book and about America's sometimes quixotic energy battles. His responses are below.


TZ: You highlight at the outset of your book that the passionate, either/or posturing that defines today's energy debates has a very long pedigree -- reaching back at least to the oil crises of the 1970s: We must choose either a path to clean, renewable resources, or devote ourselves to full exploitation of finite fossil fuels, whatever the costs. As you note, the last 40 years have been far more nuanced and multifaceted on the energy front -- the rise of natural gas, the growth in renewables, nuclear power commanding 20 percent of the electricity mix -- and yet rhetorically, the energy debate remains as polarized and simplistic as ever. Why do you think this is so, and how do we get beyond it?

ML: Our current political predicament has strong parallels with the late 1970s: a lot of either/or "posturing" (your choice of words is apt) and almost as much genuinely fundamental either/or thinking. What the two episodes also have in common is the morphing of energy debates into ideological ones. For example, arguments over renewable energy have become a proxy for debate over the wisdom of government intervention in the economy, particularly in the wake of the stimulus fight. When energy isn't being debated in its own right, but rather for symbolic value, pragmatism tends to take a back seat.

You need at least three changes in order to get past all this. Energy needs to be tackled more on its own merits and less as a way of sending signals about ideological positions. This mostly is about broader political currents rather than changes in energy per se. (We were able to do it for much of the 2000s.) You also need changes in the energy world that open up space for progress that can deliver simultaneous gains on multiple fronts. We've seen a lot of that change over the last few years. And you need people to understand that there is genuine room for compromise that isn't just a mushy middle -- that there's a path that can appeal broadly but also deliver on important goals. That takes sustained engagement between the different sides but also serious analysis to show that it's possible.

TZ: A vibrant sub-debate over whether market forces or government incentives ought to dictate our energy future seems to run through every aspect of our larger national dialogue on the topic, from electricity production to transportation and beyond. You suggest that both must play a role, but I still came away from the book thinking that clean-power advocates might charge you with downplaying the enormous leverage that deep-pocketed fossil fuel interests now enjoy to influence, retard or otherwise manipulate the market as it stands. Thoughts?

ML: One certainly shouldn't idealize the "market," particularly when powerful players have indeed shaped the rules it runs by over many decades. But that healthy skepticism is consistent with an appreciation that market forces, given the right framework, can be powerful forces for meeting important economic, security and environmental goals. As an analytical tool, it's best to think of the markets/government divide as a blurry one -- a useful starting point, but just that.

The other thing worth remembering is that the fossil fuel industry in immensely diverse. There are certainly companies whose playbook consists of spreading disinformation about climate change and lobbying aggressively against any policies that would curb emissions or oil use. But there are others that have been quite ready to play ball. Take the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (US-CAP), which included three huge oil companies, and supported (with admittedly inconsistent enthusiasm) serious climate legislation. As tough as that fight was -- and of course those who backed cap-and-trade lost -- it would have been undoubtedly more difficult with those companies on the other side. I think people have forgotten that too quickly. In fact, one can make the case that precisely those people who think that fossil fuel companies are all-powerful should be most eager to find a way to bring as many of them into their tent as possible without compromising their basic goals.

TZ: Allowing for some scientific uncertainty over how bad things might get and how quickly, you note that the mechanics of human-driven global warming are very well understood and worthy of immediate efforts to begin overhauling the global energy portfolio. And yet you also suggest that activists seeking to prevent or slow the exploitation of new and/or so-called "unconventional" fossil fuels (I'm thinking the anti-tar sands cohort in particular here) are exaggerating the real-world stakes. But even if that's true, is there value in the symbolism of efforts like the anti-tar sands movement?

ML: There's certainly an important place for symbolism and activism in encouraging policy and political shifts. Ultimately, though, we need to actually get consequential things done if we're going to seriously mitigate climate change. That requires at least some people and groups to pick their battles and to focus on emissions-cutting actions that can be scaled up at reasonable cost. It also requires attracting and sustaining broad support by picking the right fights. Alas, campaigning against popular things when it's not necessary to do so makes that tougher.

One other note: The logic ought to be different for oil and for gas. The anti-oil production efforts I can understand even if I come down somewhere else. Successful anti-gas efforts actually lead to higher carbon emissions.

TZ: You note that efforts to spur the growth of renewables take essentially one of two tracks: make carbon-producing energy technologies more expensive, or find ways -- chiefly through subsidies -- to make clean energy cheaper. The latter has been the most politically palatable up to now, but there's some indication that the Obama administration is now preparing to issue greenhouse emissions limits for existing power plants. How might that reshape things on the energy front, and if you were a betting man, where would you place your money in terms of winners and losers?

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ML: The outcome is going to depend strongly on the details of the regulations. Nuclear could end up doing very well with a solid carbon price. But how closely will EPA regulations approximate a carbon price? I don't think any of us know. EPA regulations might simply require coal plants to become more efficient. They might mostly promote coal-to-gas switching.

If I were a betting man, I'd say that if we only have EPA regulations in the long run, rather than a broad carbon price, the most we'll get is a lot of coal-to-gas switching and perhaps more demand-side efficiency depending on how the rules are designed. That's far from trivial. But I'm skeptical that the Clean Air Act can be used to effectively drive a large amount of zero-carbon energy into the system. I suspect you need new legislation for that. I genuinely have no idea which technology will prevail at that point -- it's part of why I think it's so important to encourage development of several ones.

TZ: It struck me that a recurring theme throughout the book is the rise of the unexpected. You note in several places that the rapid unlocking of shale gas and tight oil blindsided both private and government analysts, who made 180-degree turns in their predictions over the course of just a couple of years. From this I have two questions: A) How is it that the view of the energy landscape is so murky? B) Why shouldn't we assume that everything will be shaken up again by some other unforeseen development in a few years -- perhaps even one that will make your book irrelevant?

ML: Energy doesn't strike me as entirely unusual -- we didn't predict the rise of social media 10 years ago either. That said, energy trends are driven by a mix of political, social and technological developments, with an unusually strong role for distant global changes (such as policy decisions in Saudi Arabia) to influence trends in the United States. We probably wouldn't have had the shale boom had Saudi Arabia not decided to produce a lot less oil than analysts anticipated 10 years ago -- and we also wouldn't have had it had innovators not gotten a bit lucky. So there are a lot of pieces that come together to create surprising changes.

I wouldn't advise willful blindness -- after all, despite big changes, many things in the energy world are largely as we predicted 10 years ago -- but I do think humility is healthy, and that strategies should be crafted with uncertainty in mind. It's entirely possible that pieces of my analysis will be rendered irrelevant by events; it's part of why I included a chapter looking at five different "wild cards" that could shake things up. But undoubtedly something else might pop up!

I also tried to use the book to explore some of the more fundamental connections between energy, the economy, national security and climate change. I wrote those in a way that I hope ensures that they have lasting value even if many of the details of the energy world change.

Tom Zeller Jr. is a senior writer covering energy and the environment, and the recipient of a 2013-14 Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.