Energy 360: Leaving our corners for the radical middle: New Zealand sets an example

Scott Tinker worked in the oil and gas industry for 17 years in research, exploration and development before going to the University of Texas at Austin in 2000.


Gregory Daniel

Energy underpins every aspect of modern life, yet it is often a source of conflict in society. Thus, considering the political ramifications of energy policies is both inevitable and important. But separating politics from science and economics can be difficult, in part because everyone, including me, has biases. Bias in and of itself is not bad; some might even consider it an unavoidable byproduct of knowledge (or the lack thereof). The challenge with energy policy discussions is to manage bias and potential conflicts of interest and conscience. Likewise, it is exigent to consider opposing views — to leave our respective corners — and come together to rationally discuss energy options. And that is exactly what we must do. Aristotle put it well: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” A recent trip to New Zealand provided a case study on the types of conflicts that inevitably arise when discussing energy and some insights on how we might move forward.

Various polls and surveys that gauge energy knowledge suggest that most people don’t know much about the subject; mostly, we just know that we want cheap energy where we need it, when we want it, and with no environmental impact. But even if the average member of the public may be unclear or unrealistic about how best to reach those goals, he or she is correct about the key drivers: affordability, availability, reliability and sustainability — the four major tenets of energy security.

In contrast to those who don’t know much are those with deep, but often narrow, expertise. Such experts know what they like, and even more, they know what they don’t like. Sometimes they assume that anything that challenges their views must be biased propaganda. This group represents a small but vocal minority, publishing, blogging, tweeting and opining in myriad media outlets, all the while seeking (and finding) affirmation in circles of like-minded thinkers.

It takes a brave soul to admit that the “other side” may have a valid point. One thing I have learned from my considerable interactions with industry, government, academia and the public is that groups of people — each armed with different knowledge and with the courage to leave their corners and seek compromise — often arrive at workable solutions to seemingly intractable problems. This common ground, what I call the “radical middle,” is where the solution to our energy challenges lies.

Last March, I spent three days in New Zealand working with industry, government, academic and nongovernmental groups. I was asked by my co-hosts, the Petroleum Exploration & Production Association of New Zealand and SenateSHJ (a New Zealand-based consulting group), “to help raise the level of the energy conversation by bringing together people who would not otherwise sit in the same room — in other words, help people communicate objectively and civilly with one another.

New Zealand, a stable democracy with reasonably high education levels among its 5 million citizens, is blessed with an abundant and diverse portfolio of renewable energy options, including geothermal, hydro, wind, tidal and wave energy, as well as the potential to develop solar and biofuel resources. Unlike most countries, New Zealand could probably be energy “independent” with renewables alone, if the country were to fully electrify its vehicle fleet. But alas, New Zealand is also “blessed” (or perhaps “cursed,” depending on your perspective) with oil and natural gas resources, barely developed to date.

As a result, the debate there goes something like this: New Zealand could either monetize its oil and gas resources by allowing oil and gas operators to explore and develop, thereby reducing oil imports and investing the royalties in long-term funds and infrastructure for the country. (Norway is currently doing something similar to this.) Or, New Zealand could avoid the potential environmental risks related to oil and gas activity (and give up the potential revenue from oil and gas sales) by foregoing drilling.

These are both viable choices, and thus worthy of discussion and debate. But such a debate should be based on data and facts, not political rhetoric. Unfortunately, energy discussions are often anything but fact-based, spun as they often are by people with too little expertise or with deep yet narrow expertise who rely on high drama and scare tactics but who are rarely required to present realistic alternatives.

There is no right or wrong in the New Zealand discussion. But what is clear is that the issue won’t be addressed properly unless the principals involved — industry, political parties, academics, nongovernmental organizations and the public — come out of their respective corners and open their minds to information and compromise. Compromise is not a show of weakness, but a barometer of personal confidence and respect for others’ views. It also reveals the intention to get things done.

The counsel I offered to the people of New Zealand could apply to many other countries contemplating their energy futures. First, avoid picking energy winners, but instead couch decisions in terms of “energy security.” Secure energy is affordable, available, reliable and environmentally sustainable. A diverse energy policy reflects the reality that no energy source is perfect and all benefits come with some cost. Second, quantify the potential benefits of developing oil and natural gas as objectively as possible. Third, weigh these against the environmental risks from oil and gas operations, understanding which are probable, potential or unlikely and what the environmental impacts of a failure might be. Fourth, quantify the potential benefits of renewable energies as objectively as possible and weigh these against the economic challenges of increased infrastructure cost, higher energy prices and intermittent supply. Finally, and most importantly, I encouraged all groups to leave their corners and head toward the common ground of the radical middle.

Scott Tinker

Tinker is director of the Bureau of Economic Geology, the state geologist of Texas, a professor holding the Allday Endowed Chair and acting Associate Dean of Research in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. He co-produced and is featured in the energy documentary, “SWITCH.” In this periodic column, he will consider how technical, economic, environmental and political issues intersect in discussions about energy, and examine how they impact our lives broadly — all with a 360-degree view. The views expressed are his own.

Friday, September 13, 2013 - 08:00

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