The Berkeley Forum hosts panelists to discuss future of fossil fuels in America

Nathaniel Tolley/Staff

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Experts on energy, transportation and conservation engaged in a panel Thursday on the future of fossil fuels in America and its implications for the environment and economy.

The event was hosted by the Berkeley Forum, a campus group that organizes talks and panels, and brought together three experts representing diverse viewpoints in a discussion in Moffitt Library attended by about 30 individuals. Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation; Brigham McCown, managing director of United Transportation Advisors; and Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, each gave an introductory speech before the panel.

Schweiger, who spoke first, focused on the link between climate change and fossil fuels. He emphasized the urgency of responding to climate change, citing increasing rates of animal extinction, vast amounts of heat trapped by the atmosphere, melting polar ice, increased forest fires and the global rise in temperature.

“When the pot is boiling over, who would suggest turning up the heat?” he said. “And yet, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

McCown focused on the economic and environmental issues associated with energy transportation and use. He said U.S. energy policy is based on an earlier era in which oil scarcity was a major concern. That is no longer the case, he said — the gap between domestic energy consumption and production is closing as new sources of oil and natural gas are being discovered.

He also probed the use of energy as a tool for political manipulation internationally, asking whether “energy supplies are being used as a weapon around the world.”

Reheis-Boyd acknowledged that the oil industry is interested in renewable technologies but said the discussion must be conducted with awareness of the current state of oil dependence.

Balancing a move away from fossil fuels with consumer expectations of uninterrupted energy is critical, she said, and cannot happen instantaneously.

“We expect to turn our lights on, we expect to heat and cool our homes, and we expect to drive from A to B,” she said.

UC Berkeley freshman Matthew Freeman moderated a panel between the three speakers. Much of the discussion revolved around whether natural gas could be used as a bridge fuel between fossil fuels and renewable energy.

Reheis-Boyd claimed that while natural gas isn’t “the only solution to our energy future,” it is a way in which Americans could begin to make a change quickly. Schweiger said natural gas could be used as a bridge fuel but warned about methane leaks associated with drilling. McCown said he saw natural gas as an important bridge fuel, and in some cases, leaks occur due to aging and outdated infrastructure.

Audience members also asked questions relating to the relationships between the United States and foreign energy consumption, fracking and nuclear energy.

Robbie Housden, a UC Berkeley sophomore, called it an “enriching experience” and noted it was a “very civil discussion.” Arthur Fong, a UC Berkeley junior, acknowledged that he would’ve liked to see more attendees but commented that such discussions are important to raise awareness before disaster occurs.

The Berkeley Forum will host a panel on biotechnology and its impact on the future of humanity Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Wurster Hall.

Contact Sahil Chinoy at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @sahilchinoy_dc.