EDF: Lock In Soft Energy, Not Coal-Killing Gas

Why We Can't Leave Emissions Reductions to Establishment Greens

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The EDF’s bland proposition on gas and fracking is only slightly less ridiculous than the rest of the national environmental movement. The EDF remains soft energy-focused and stuck in the traditional pollution paradigm.

March 15, 2013 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

In response to our last blog post about how celebrity fracktivists have reversed the longstanding support of national environmental organizations for a coal-to-gas switch, the Environmental Defense Fund's climate and energy communications director Keith Gaby wrote us to say we had taken Fred Krupp's position on gas out of context.

In our post, we wrote: 

Bill McKibben and his organization 350.org have made common cause with the anti-fracking movement, as has the Sierra Club. NRDC went from being supportive of a coal-to-gas switch to opposing the expansion of gas production. Even the Environmental Defense Fund’s chief, Fred Krupp, said in a debate last month that he opposes the expansion of natural gas.

Here is Gaby's full statement:

Following a debate with Michael Shellenberger, Breakthrough used one line out of context to claim that the EDF president Fred Krupp “opposes the expansion of natural gas.” That’s not a fair or accurate reading of his position. (Check out the full transcript.) He said, rather, that it’s not the role of environmental groups to “promote” the expansion of natural gas, as the market is doing a fine job of that on its own. Our job, he said in the debate, is to “work very hard to make sure that that is done in a clean way, and that is done in a way that harvests the maximum climate benefits." EDF also believes we should leave room for the far cleaner options of renewable energy and increasing efficiency, in addition to natural gas. We believe that all or nothing strategies do not serve the environment or the economy. The natural gas boom, if handled carefully, can be a positive for our environment – after all, gas burns more cleanly than coal, producing less global warming pollution. But handled carelessly, gas can be a danger to the environment since leaked methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe; not to mention other potential environmental damage if gas isn’t extracted, distributed, and used responsibly. In short, EDF’s position on natural gas is: Get it right. As the market pushes gas to be a greater share of the energy mix, our job as environmentalists is to see that it’s done in a way that’s good for people and the environment.

Here's what Krupp said in its full context:

"I would say that I don't think the Environmental Defense Fund nor anyone in the environmental community who cares about this issue should be promoting the use of natural gas. I think we should be recognizing reality, and not, as Ted said, assuming we can wish it away. And what that means is we have to clean up natural gas so that neighbors are not victimized. There haven't been a lot of examples of water contamination through fractures, but there have been thousands of cases of water contaminating through surface spills or the drill casing not being well lined. There are people getting sick. I was in Washington County last year and met a woman who had been forced to move, abandon her family farm. Her son was living with neighbors so he could attend school, because of the noxious fumes coming out of the wells. So we have to clean this up, both for the neighbors and for the atmosphere. If we do that, then we maximize the benefits that we get in the real world, where people are switching out of coal and into natural gas. But I don't think we should be promoting it. On the contrary, I think we should be doing whatever we can to lock, to avoid excessive lock-in in new natural gas plants. Right now, a lot of the new natural gas electrons are coming from existing capacity. And we should be locking in energy efficiency gains and renewables instead."

We'll let readers be the judge of whether we accurately represented Krupp's remarks in the debate. In our view we did. We made no claim to represent Krupp's past or future views on the question. We characterized his remarks in the debate in which Ted (not Michael) engaged him on the question. In that debate, he begins and ends his remarks on the subject by stating unequivocally that environmental groups shouldn't be promoting natural gas and should be trying to avoid "excessive lock-in" of new natural gas plants and instead promoting energy efficiency gains. 

Gaby would have us believe that EDF takes a consistent position on this question, simply trying to make sure that whatever energy technologies the market chooses will be clean. But actually, what Fred says is that we should be “locking in renewables and efficiency instead.” Indeed, throughout the entire transcript, Krupp returns again and again to promoting renewables, and indeed, EDF has throughout its history been a leading advocate of renewables and efficiency.  

What Gaby seems to really want is some credit for the fact that EDF holds a slightly less ridiculous position on gas and fracking than the rest of the national environmental movement. That has arguably been EDF's brand proposition for decades – to stake out a position that is marginally softer on the soft energy path and marginally more bullish on market mechanisms than the rest of the environmental movement. This has arguably made EDF marginally more effective in Washington than most of the rest of the movement. But the natural gas revolution ultimately calls the question on whether EDF really is a different kind of environmental organization. Krupp's remarks reveal EDF as less so than might first meet the eye – soft energy-focused and still stuck in the old pollution paradigm. Faced with a disruptive new technology that is reducing emissions, shutting down coal-fired power plants all over the country, and keeping large amounts of U.S. coal in the ground, Krupp still can't manage to embrace it and instead proposes to regulate it where his colleagues would ban it.

— Ted and Michael

Photo Credit: Remy Steinegger/World Economic Forum


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