Into the Lion’s Den

Photo by Anthony Clark

The day before the much-anticipated panel, “Hydraulic Fracturing: Bridge to a Clean Energy Future?” I had the opportunity to interview John Hofmeister, former President of Shell Oil and one of the event’s panelists.

I had spent the weekend reading Mr. Hofmeister’s book Why We Hate The Oil Companies and watching his speeches on Youtube in an attempt to get inside his head.  Hofmeister had served as Shell’s president from 2005 to 2008; upon retirement, he founded Citizens for Affordable Energy, a public policy education organization that promotes “affordable, cleaner energy.” A resolute champion of cheap electrons, Hofmeister believes that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to obtain shale gas has “opened up an incredible new resource,” and could provide a “super-highway” to a clean energy future.

The evening after my interview with Hofmeister, a circle of students and faculty stood outside of Kroon Hall, heatedly debating energy economics and drinking beer as the sun set.  I found myself role-playing Hofmeister — a man whose views, to put it lightly, are neither common nor popular within the F&ES community — and soon I’d touched off a vibrant debate. From the outside it might have seemed like my classmates were attacking me, and several times I had to point out that I was just temporarily assuming an alternate identity, just playing the part of John Hofmeister.  In those moments, I became vividly aware of the courage and conviction required to enter a debate despite knowing that your views will not be popular, as Mr. Hofmeister would do at F&ES the next day.

After two-and-a-half hours, the sky completely dark  and our stomachs grumbling for dinner, we all walked away, smiling and satisfied at the intellectual challenge we’d just faced.  Whether or not we agree with Mr. Hofmeister’s views, our ad hoc debate last Monday evening, and the panel that followed, demonstrate the value of attempting to understand different opinions.  Though we may not agree on whether hydraulic fracturing is a bridge to a clean energy future, challenging ourselves to understand other points of view, and finding even small items we can agree on, is a step towards negotiating the path forward.

What follows are highlights from my conversation with John Hofmeister.


Hofmeister on the safety and sustainability of fracking:    

“With the right materials and the right procedures, with careful oversight and proper work management, I believe we can do fracking in ways that are safe and sustainable –– provided that everyone follows the best standards and proper regulations, and that people are prohibited from cutting corners.  If [gas companies] violate their permits or the regulations, they should lose their right to operate.”

On whether oil and gas companies truly meet best practices to ensure that fracking is executed safely and sustainably:

“I am confident that oil and gas companies do [meet best practices], given the number of wells that they drill and the very isolated examples of incompetence or poor judgment that result in harm to the environment or to people. When you consider 38,000 wells drilled last year…it’s not like every time you turn on the TV there is another well explosion.

“There is no question in my mind that the best-known large oil and gas companies religiously work to meet regulations, and engineer their wells with health, safety and the environment in mind. That is what they are trained to do, that is what their work permits require, and that is what the management is expected to do.”

On diversity within the oil and gas industry:

I can’t begin to tell you how angry — I mean physically, emotionally angry — the industry was when the BP well blew up in the Gulf of Mexico.  Because one more time, here was that company, BP, obviously making bad judgments on the physical aspects of the procedures, the physical limits of what is possible with the equipment, the engineering design and the well design and so forth.

“I also can’t speak for small independent operators who operate under a different business model and may not have the capital strength or the financial strength that the large major companies do… By and large, I have as much confidence in independents as I do the majors, except that there are some that will cut corners.”

On the role of government: 

“Government needs to get behind the effort, not oppose the effort.  Government needs to help set and enforce the standards, not fight with each other and fight with the companies.  Everything right now is just one big brawl, industry against government.”

On balancing the need to burn affordable fossil fuels with the carbon emissions they produce:

 “[Carbon emissions] will get worse before they get better, because the U.S., China, India, and the rest of the world will use more hydrocarbons over the next forty to fifty years, not fewer…Whether the US does nothing or does everything possible, our country is not large enough to influence the outcome of the whole world.

“We could completely reform the energy system to be essentially carbon free.  But we need to have the enablers and the governance to make that happen, and we have to allow time.  We can’t just rush it.  What I see the Obama administration doing is rushing it and making all kinds of horrible decisions, including having the taxpayers fund what I consider commercial junk in the solar energy business.

“By 2060 or 2070, we could essentially eliminate coal and eliminate natural gas from our power production needs.  We could eliminate the internal combustion engine.  All these things, which are today the cause of so much waste in the atmosphere, can be eliminated.  Just cleaning up dirty fuel won’t do it.  We need to transform.

“I think we will find better and more efficient technologies, and later in the century things will get much, much better quickly.”

On whether or not current renewable energy technologies are worthwhile investments:

Much of what’s being sold as solar panels would never be sold if it wasn’t subsidized by taxpayers, because it’s junk. Its efficiency is so low that nobody in their right mind would buy it.  Except [the consumer] isn’t buying it –– the taxpayers are.

Instead, we ought to be putting equivalent money into research and development of high-efficiency solar panels using nanotechnology. We should scratch these silicon photovoltaics and scratch these thin film initiatives which are just barely edging up the efficiency of solar panels by single percentage points.  We need to triple or quadruple the efficiency [of solar] with new materials never yet made by man.

“We need all the energy we can get from all sources, so I’m not saying to stop using solar.  I’m saying, put more money into R&D.  We’re seeing wind farms that are not connected to the grid because we don’t have the grid network.  China has the same problems.  They’re setting up wind farms unconnected to the larger grid.  We end up with stranded assets – wind turbines in location where there is no demand, where the electricity that could be produced can’t be sent anywhere.  You end up with wind farms doing nothing.  We rushed to build wind farms without having the regional agreements to connect them to the grid.

“I’m in favor of doing energy from all sources, including hydrogen, geothermal, and nuclear.  But we are stuck on traditional energy until we have a pathway.”

On to how best to deal with the threat of an uninhabitable “Eaarth” resulting from global warming, as described by Bill McKibben:

“I believe that by rushing [our response to global warming], we will kill it.  We rushed cap and trade, and we killed cap and trade.  Do you notice that in this election nobody, but nobody, is talking about cap and trade? We’ve gone backwards because we rushed it.

“There is no known technology that is ready for prime time in moving us away from traditional energies.  By rushing the process away from traditional energy, we are asking people, in a democracy, to live a worse life.  Nobody gets elected by asking people to live a worse life than they live today… I have great respect for environmentalists but they don’t run the country.  The country is run by a democratic system and people will vote in their self-interest.”

On the American mindset as it relates to public energy policy:

[Speaking from the point of view of the American consumer]: “My job is to take care of my family, to take care of my neighborhood, to take care of my children.   I want a good life for them.  And all I want to know is that the electricity coming to my house is something I can afford.  And I want to get in my car when I want to get in my car and I want to go somewhere.  And I want gasoline to be something that I can easily afford.  Self-interested individuals in a democracy will fight anyone who is going to try to take away their lifestyle.

Is fracking dirty? You bet fracking is dirty, but at what point do you not want power? At what point do people not want electricity? Or at what point do people want to pay 5 times the price of electricity just to have some?”

On the need for widespread education on energy issues:

“The more people realize about the harm that they are doing to themselves and the environment, the faster we could actually go… When people don’t know anything, they want to just keep everything as is.  If they are informed and educated and aware, they promote change more rapidly. That’s why I founded Citizens for Affordable Energy.”


At the panel last Tuesday afternoon, revered environmentalist Bill McKibben rebutted John Hofmeister’s statements using words that resembled the ones with which my peers had argued against me in our mock-debate.  McKibben, appealing to the hearts and minds of like-minded environmentalists, received applause several times.  John Hofmeister received applause exactly once: after the statement, “There should be no private funding in campaign finance.”

At least there was something the room agreed on.

Marissa Galizia

Marissa Galizia is a joint-degree student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale School of Management.

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