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How can fossil fuel producers balance demand with an urgent need for change?


Oil and gas account for more than two-thirds of total U.S. energy production. The burning of those fossil fuels is a major contributor to climate change, so the Biden administration is targeting a 50% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. But abandoning those reliable energy sources is easier said than done. In this fourth installment of our series on America's energy transition, we'll hear about how the future may look for U.S. oil and gas industries. Samantha Gross is the director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution and says the industry has to adapt to a new reality.

SAMANTHA GROSS: The U.S. oil and gas companies understand that a low-carbon future is the direction that we're going. However, we also have the issue that we have to feed the energy system that we have today. So those oil and gas companies are in a bit of a pickle. There's still demand for their product today, although they know the world is changing. And so that makes for a really challenging business environment for them.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so President Biden targets net-zero emissions for 2050 - the year 2050. How likely is this goal, as far as it being achieved, given the current reliance on carbon-emitting technologies all across various sectors?

GROSS: It's a difficult goal, certainly, but I don't think it's impossible. What we need to do right now is we need to focus on implementation for the technologies that we have - things like replacing coal and natural gas in the electricity sector, replacing light vehicle gasoline with electric vehicles. And then what we need to do in addition is research and development on some of the more difficult technologies that we don't have yet - things like industrial decarbonization or aviation, for instance. And so we have to walk and chew gum at the same time - implement the things we know how to do and continue research and development and pilot projects on things that we're still figuring out.

MARTÍNEZ: You wrote a piece for Brookings titled "Why Are Fossil Fuels So Hard To Quit?" So I'm going to ask you that very question, Samantha. Why are fossil fuels so hard to quit?

GROSS: Fossil fuels are hard to quit because they're incredibly useful. We started using them, and they really just opened up new avenues to mankind, gave us so much more energy to power our economy than we'd ever had before. And now we're trying to move away from them because we understand the environmental climate impacts that they have. But they're deeply embedded into our economy. Everything we do every day is based on fossil fuels. So the world has never tried to move away from something so embedded in its economy so quickly. But now that we understand the danger that fossil fuels pose, that's what we need to do.

MARTÍNEZ: Is it a zero-sum game? In other words, for us to have a cleaner future, the fossil fuel industry has to lose in order for that to happen.

GROSS: I don't think it's necessarily a zero-sum game, and I think you can look to Europe for some examples of that. You see some of the big European oil and gas companies shifting to being energy companies and focusing on some of the things that they do well that correspond to a fossil fuel-free world - for instance, oil and gas companies focusing on offshore wind because they're good at operating in the offshore. The question is how quickly those companies adapt. If they don't, they may not make it. But other companies may come in and take their place. And so I hope it's not a zero-sum game, but it may not work out for individual companies who can't find a way to make the transition.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned to look to Europe as possibly a model for this transition to be successful. Is America the problem here? And not necessarily just our politics, but how we kind of go about things, our - the way that we do things when it comes to trying to transition away from fossil fuels.

GROSS: You know, the politics in the United States are challenging because they've gotten wrapped up in our current polarization. And climate change has become yet another issue that we can't seem to agree on. However, I think the United States sometimes gets a bad rap. We do things quite differently than Europe does, but we have some real advantages in this transition. And a couple of them are our incredibly good research system - our universities, our national labs - and also our financing system, with things like venture capital and other forms of financing. Once we put our mind to this, we'll be really good at it. And I think the Inflation Reduction Act is a really good step in helping to put the things that the U.S. is good at to work.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, I live in California, Samantha, and it wasn't that long ago when the state asked people not to charge their electric vehicles because the grid needed the break. So when we hear that kind of thing, I think a lot of people are thinking, well, wait a second. I mean, how ready are we to transition away from fossil fuels when the alternative isn't ready to handle this entire transition?

GROSS: An important part of the transition will be some combination of storage of that intermittent power so that we can have power available when it's not windy or sunny and also forms of baseload power that can produce all the time, regardless of the weather conditions. That could be, in some cases, nuclear, if we can get a bit better at that and bring the costs down. It could also be things like geothermal. And so the real breakthroughs that we're looking for to have a renewable-based energy system are particularly storage - cheaper storage and longer-time storage. Right now, it's pretty easy to store electricity during the day so that you can use it during the evening. But storing enough electricity to get you through a cloudy or a less windy week is a lot more difficult right now. That's really a breakthrough that will make a huge difference in our ability to rely on a renewable electricity system.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned the word breakthrough, Samantha. Is that what this needs - one big technological breakthrough to really, really think that a future without carbon emitting fossil fuel is realistic?

GROSS: We need a few technological breakthroughs. But I have to point out that we can get a good bit of the way there with technology we have now. Transportation and electricity, respectively, are our first- and second-biggest sectors. And we have technologies that can get us a lot of the way there in both of those sectors. But we still need breakthroughs in electricity storage, in hydrogen production to be used both as an energy storage mechanism and also for areas that are difficult to decarbonize using electricity. So it's not just one breakthrough. We need a few. But I want to emphasize that we have the technology to get a good bit of the way there now. And some of it, like wind and solar electricity, is even cheap.

MARTÍNEZ: Samantha Gross is a fellow and director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Samantha, thanks.

GROSS: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUFF DADDY'S "SOPHIE'S SYMPHONY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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