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Q&A With Mark Tercek

There’s an energy revolution happening, and it has serious implications for our economy and for the environment. On November 20, Nature Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek spoke at the Bloomberg Business Summit in Chicago, a multi-day gathering of CEOs, senior executives, public sector officials and leaders in finance to look at how the world’s biggest industries are evolving.

Tercek joined former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Carol Browner; Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Robert Hormats; and former New York Governor George Pataki in discussing the energy revolution, which new energy technologies offer big wins for nature, and what we can do right now to make a difference. We sat down with Mark to get the highlights.

Tell us about the changes we are seeing in the energy sector and why they are so important. What major technologies do you see playing an important role in the future?

Mark Tercek:

New sources of energy—renewable in particular—are an important piece of global efforts to both meet our growing energy needs and fight climate change. At the same time, we must balance the environmental impacts of all energy development with potential benefits.

Although wind, solar and other renewable sources will be a key part of the solution, the challenges we face are too big to take any technology off the table. We need a multi-solution approach. That may include some new version of nuclear power. And it should include carbon capture and storage technology applied to the fossil fuel facilities that many countries will go on using.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has passionate supporters on both sides. Is natural gas production a smart economic and environmental choice?

Mark Tercek:

The environmental community is deeply divided on the shale gas revolution. There are even a range of views across TNC. There are clear economic benefits: it provides a low-cost domestic supply of energy for decades and may also bring chemical manufacturers that rely on gas back to the United States. Abundant shale gas has allowed the United States to shift away from coal to generate power. And since natural gas generates half the CO2 as coal, this shift is reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Simply replacing coal with natural gas, however, will not achieve long-term carbon reduction goals. And for it to be truly beneficial, shale gas has to be done right. That means less toxic chemicals, better water treatment processes, and a reduced surface footprint—the roads and pipelines and noise and truck traffic—to protect wildlife habitat and rural communities.

To that end, TNC is working with shale gas companies in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Colorado, Wyoming and beyond to help them better plan the placement of roads, wells and pipelines to avoid destroying important natural habitats. We are also helping guide coordinated development plans and regulatory policies that encourage companies to share infrastructure and minimize their environmental impact. This is one example of engaging on a tough issue and finding common ground to meet the nation’s energy needs while ensuring the safety of our lands and waters.

Another controversial topic is the Keystone pipeline, which would bring oil from the tar sands regions of Canada into the United States. If the Keystone pipeline permit is approved by the Obama Administration, what are the impacts of that decision?

Mark Tercek:

From start to finish, fuels made from tar sands have 40 percent more carbon dioxide emissions than fuels made from conventional crude oils. Even if you could reduce the production emissions, tar sands make the same fossil gasoline and diesel fuel that are sources of the global warming problem.

So it’s not really about the Keystone pipeline: it is about the path we are on. We still need to move towards a transportation system that uses renewable energy sources. If we are going to invest billions and billions of dollars in new sources of energy, they should be fuels and energy systems that are cleaner than the fuels we are burning today, not dirtier.

Where do we stand with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar? Are these resources accessible, or will the low gas prices we’re seeing today hurt their growth?

Mark Tercek:

The most significant factor in the development of renewable energy sources are state laws requiring utility companies to get a percentage of their generation from wind, solar or biomass. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia currently have these standards.

Most (about 90%) of the power generating facilities that have been built to meet these standards are wind farms. As a result, prices for onshore wind power have dropped dramatically. In recent months, utility companies and wind suppliers have been writing long-term contracts for wind energy that are competitive with natural gas prices.

Aside from developing new energy sources, there must be some low-hanging fruit in terms of energy reduction that could have positive effects on both carbon emissions and the economy. What kind of energy policies could we implement that would make a significant difference?

Mark Tercek:

In the short term, we could reduce our energy consumption by 25 percent with efficiency measures for vehicles, buildings and appliances alone. This would reduce emissions, reduce oil imports—thereby enhancing energy security—and it would save each and every one of us money on basic utility and gas bills.

Second, we need to reduce carbon emissions from the electric utility sector. Power plants account for 40 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions and the current fleet of coal plants is responsible for 80 percent of that 40 percent.

The third focus for the long term is to convert our transportation system to low-carbon emissions. This means electrifying more personal transportation vehicles, and shifting long-haul vehicles—the planes, ships, trucks and trains that use 40 percent of our transportation energy—to an energy-dense, low carbon fuel, likely made from biomass.

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