Last month, I attended two events on U.S. international collaboration on energy issues, both of which involved presentations and panel discussions featuring high-level representatives from government, business, academia, and non-governmental organizations. Despite some discussion of renewable energy and climate change, U.S. government and business representatives centered the discussion largely on shale gas, “clean” coal, and nuclear power.
The first event was the third U.S.-India Energy Partnership Summit, co-convened by Yale University and The Energy Resources Institute (TERI) of India. Panelists discussed experiences and opportunities for collaboration on sustainable energy initiatives, from joint research and development of technologies to promoting policies and financial mechanisms that encourage clean energy investment. The Summit was chaired by Rajendra K. Pachauri, President of TERI North America and Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
A forum for sustainable energy collaboration between the United States and India is especially important in the context of stagnating international climate negotiations, where the two countries have often assumed adversarial roles. Although the Summit demonstrated the promise of mutual interests, I was disappointed by the focus of several of the high-level speakers on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
The nature of the energy partnership described by U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman centers largely on “clean coal” technology and shale gas exploration, as well as tighter standards for nuclear energy in India. Dr. Charles Ebinger, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, reinforced this position by highlighting the central role that the coal industry plays in the Indian economy, including as a large employer. Dr. Ebinger also took a rather pessimistic view of India’s ability to expand the share of renewable energy, claiming that renewable energy could not account for more than 20 to 25 percent of the country’s energy mix by 2030 or even 2040.
Later in the week, Deputy Secretary Poneman made another appearance as the keynote speaker at an event entitled “Transatlantic Energy Futures: The Changing Energy Mix and Implications for Transatlantic Partnership,” hosted by the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University. Here again, the focus of the energy supply discussion centered largely on coal and carbon capture and storage (CCS), shale gas, and nuclear energy.
The role of shale gas arose as an area of particular interest at both events. Deputy Secretary Poneman highlighted the rapid expansion of shale gas in the United States, where it now accounts for about 30 percent of total natural gas consumption. Europe remains divided on the issue of unconventional gas, with France having banned shale gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, while others including Poland are eager to exploit their newfound resources. It will also be several years before European countries develop the infrastructure necessary for commercial-scale shale gas production.
In particular, participants emphasized that Europe should aim to avoid the significant controversy and public outcry over shale gas extraction that occurred in the United States. Poneman cited a recent Advisory Board Report commissioned by U.S. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, which determined that shale gas can be developed safely as long as activities are transparent, there is clear communication with the public, and industry works with government. An industry representative from Chevron presented the latest in technology safeguards to protect water supplies near hydraulic fracturing well sites. However, despite these declarations from industry and the federal government about the potential to safely extract shale gas, much of the public distrust remains in the absence of federal regulations to protect water supplies from this process.
With regard to renewable energy policy, Deputy Secretary Poneman referred to the recent difficulties of some European countries to maintain feed-in tariffs in the midst of the economic crisis. Dismissing feed-in tariffs as “excessively expensive subsidies” that are unsuitable in the U.S. context, Poneman described the U.S. approach of investing in innovation to reduce renewable energy costs. This approach, however, seems to ignore the crucial need for financial incentives that encourage commercial-scale renewable energy investment that is necessary to achieve the experience and economies of scale required to make renewable energy technologies competitive with conventional sources. Poneman’s statement also disregards the tens of billions of dollars of U.S. subsidies that go to the fossil fuel industry each year, even though the industry has existed for decades. Subsidies should be reserved for fledgling industries, such as most forms of renewable energy, that need initial support to become commercially viable.
U.S. reluctance to reliably incentivize renewable energy is particularly baffling when compared to its sustained subsidy support system for nuclear energy. Speakers at last month’s events highlighted U.S. eagerness to win contracts to build nuclear energy capacity in both India and Europe.
Representatives from the United States, India, and Europe at both events stressed the difficulty of promoting renewable energy policies in a democratic context where consumers are unwilling to pay higher energy prices and where, in some cases, coal plays an important role in the economy. However, fossil fuel consumption disproportionately affects low-income communities, which are more vulnerable to air pollution and associated public health impacts. These communities are often politically disenfranchised, and the negative effects of dirty energy consumption that they experience are therefore more easily ignored in democratic systems, especially where fossil fuel lobbies wield heavy political influence.
In India, the national coal company engages in land grabs from poor tribal communities for coal mining operations with the consent of the national government. Peaceful democratic protests against coal mines and power plants are often violently suppressed by the Indian police, calling into question government and industry claims of the need to develop coal power due to political pressures of democracy.
Serious discussion of the urgent need for a rapid global transition to renewable energy in order to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts was surprisingly spare at both events. Consideration of the respective roles of fossil fuel and renewable energy sources was mostly guided by business investment opportunities and energy supply security.
For me, these events demonstrated the need for a new kind of international dialogue on sustainable energy. While elite government and business interests were well-represented on panels at both events, grassroots civil society interests were noticeably absent (with the exception of praise for TERI’s solar lantern campaign). International collaborations on energy issues must be guided by a clear scientific understanding of the needs for climate change mitigation, as well as a stronger people’s perspective on development paths and energy futures.
Shakuntala Makhijani is a Climate and Energy Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute.