State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Reporter Russell Gold Warns Against a ‘Failure of Imagination’ in the Energy Sector

Russell Gold at a book signing
Russell Gold at a book signing. Photo: Larry D. Moore/Wikimedia Commons

Russell Gold covers energy and climate change for the Wall Street Journal. As a reporter, he has had a front-row seat in every major energy story over the past two decades.

Gold was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2011 coverage of the Deepwater Horizon Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and then again in 2020 for the Camp Fire in Northern California that led to what some call the largest climate bankruptcy in history, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in early 2019.

His books include The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World, the definitive history of fracking, and Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy, one of the most talked about books in renewable energy.

A Columbia University history major (Class of ’93), Gold would be the first to tell you that energy non-fiction usually makes eyes glaze over. But in Superpower, Gold succeeded in making power transmission positively captivating, for energy wonks and general audiences alike.

I caught up with Gold by phone in late July over virtual lunch — his was a sub sandwich from Thundercloud Subs, a popular local sandwich shop in Austin, Texas, where Gold lives with his family.

A history buff with an unpretentious and wry delivery, he discussed with me the major energy stories of our time, including the failings of PG&E management to recognize how their business was impacted by an abruptly changing climate, a perhaps similar failing by large oil and gas companies to recognize the writing on the wall, and how he makes energy stories interesting to readers. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Benjamin Hogan: You recently finished over a year of reporting on the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), California’s largest utility, which provides electricity and gas to over 15 million people and businesses in much of Northern California. PG&E ultimately needed to file for bankruptcy due to liabilities arising from the Camp Fire, the Tubbs Fire, and the other fires ostensibly caused by their equipment. In PG&E’s defense, due to a shifting rain belt, Northern California is experiencing a many-years-long drought which has caused the death of 110 million trees, creating a lot of wildfire fuel. How much should we hold PG&E’s management to blame?

Russell Gold: The biggest thing that PG&E confronted is that the climate in its service territory changed very dramatically, very quickly, and they had not seen that anywhere else. None of their peers had undergone such a dramatic change. The only thing even close is the way FP&L (Florida’s largest utility) responded to some of the larger hurricanes that they had seen over the last ten years.

PG&E didn’t respond very appropriately or quickly. It didn’t take action commensurate with the risk it was facing. At the end of the day, PG&E failed risk management. It failed to understand that the risks it was facing had changed by an order of magnitude.

structure damaged by fire
This melted structure in Paradise, California provides a gruesome scene of the Camp Fire’s damage in November 2018. Many structures burned entirely to ashes leaving little to remind observers what existed prior to the fire. Photo: Benjamin Hogan

Can you give an example of management failure in the face of a changing climate?

There’s a great document that was uncovered over the last year which talked about the transmission line that failed that caused Camp Fire (and ultimately PG&E’s bankruptcy). It was an internal PG&E document and I remember it said something like, “We don’t have to worry about the hooks failing and dropping one of the transmission lines and causing a fire because the only way something like that would happen is during the rainy season.”

PG&E executives couldn’t conceive of a problem where a tower would drop its line during a drought and cause a wildfire. It was beyond their comprehension. That is really chilling getting back to climate change.

If you accept that climate change is going to mean that the climate in different parts of the world is doing things we haven’t seen before and human beings can’t adjust quickly, we are going to see a lot more problems like PG&E. I said a minute ago that PG&E was a failure of risk management. It was also a failure of imagination by those in charge, and that is a scary lesson involving climate change.

How do you make energy and climate reporting tangible and interesting to mainstream readers?

I start from the point of view that most readers really don’t care about energy. They expect when they turn the light switch on that they will have reliable electricity. They expect that when they pull into their local gas station that they are going to have gasoline at a relatively affordable price. We expect energy to be there 99.9 percent of the time, and we expect it to be relatively affordable.

One of the challenges that I have is to get people to understand their place in the system, and how the choices they are making are driving the corporate decisions to deliver that energy.

One of the big points I made in my first book, The Boom, is the reason we frack isn’t because big oil is some demonic presence that just wants to create these holes in the Earth and destroy the water table, or something like that. No. The reason we frack is because the public wants the cheap gas and the cheap oil that comes from fracking. We are all in this together. And the oil companies are for the most part an extension of consumer desires, and they are giving us what we want. So a lot of what I try to do is look for creative ways to make those connections.

Can you give an example of connecting the human story to the boring energy part?

map of alaskaFifteen years ago I decided that I wanted to go to the place in the U.S. where gasoline was the most expensive. This was a time when gasoline was getting more expensive and people were beginning to wonder if they were going to have to cut down on driving. So I ended up flying into a place called Shungnak, Alaska, which is so far into the interior that fuel is only delivered once or twice a year and it’s insanely expensive [$8/gallon, more than 2.5 times the national average at the time]. By finding that extreme situation, I was writing about this rural Alaskan community and their relationship with diesel fuel, but I was also raising the question about what happens if the energy we need becomes prohibitively expensive. In this instance, it showed in a very small way what was playing out around the world, which was the wealthy nations could pay for the price increase, but it was absolutely devastating to less well-off communities.

What’s your view of big oil’s role in the energy transition?

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the European oil majors are embracing the transition and putting real money trying to find sustainable businesses. On the U.S. side, Chevron and Exxon are not. They are taking the approach that they are going to double down on oil and gas. Time will tell which strategy makes the most sense. I clearly think we are in an energy transition, but it doesn’t mean the first movers are the ones who benefit from that.

I’ve been thinking that the major oil and gas companies must be part of the solution, but I just listened to an interesting interview with Naomi Oreskes and she said, the major oil and gas companies cannot be trusted, full stop. She believes the oil and gas companies have shown over and over again that they are just going to deceive and can’t be trusted. Any thoughts?

My response to what Oreskes is saying is that climate change is a problem of scale. What matters is, can we create giant industrial processes to provide the energy modern society needs without emitting carbon dioxide in large amounts? And solving complicated problems at scale is something energy companies are good at. I completely understand where Oreskes is coming from, and certainly companies like Exxon have not acquitted themselves well over the last 20 to 30 years. However, to say that people looking for a climate solution cannot work with the big energy companies, full stop, I think is a classic example of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

I tend to agree with that philosophically, but can you point to any examples?

Think about carbon capture. What if someone comes up with a really smart chemical interaction that bolts on to a big turbine and allows you to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and we need to make thousands or millions of these? I’m not saying Exxon has to be the company that does that — maybe its GE, or Siemens, there are lots of big industrial companies that could. I just don’t think categorically that companies like Exxon or big oil companies should be ruled out. Look at what Shell, BP, and Total are doing right now. They are asking a really important fundamental question which is, “How can we build a large sustainable energy business around renewables?” It’s frankly a question nobody has really solved so far. And I for one am glad they are asking that question.

What do you think is the most underreported story in U.S. energy right now?

The easy answer I suppose is that renewable energy is going to completely come to dominate the energy sector over the next 20 to 30 years. Anyone who is paying attention can see it happening. In some ways it’s driving all the other stories that we talk about. The fact that we have this giant new cheap source of energy is one reason why attacks on fossil fuel are so much more successful than they’ve ever been in the past.

What’s the boldest, out of consensus prediction you’d be willing to make regarding the impacts of climate change?

We are going to start seeing internal demographic movement in the U.S. driven by climate. Half a century ago, people started moving into the Southwest because of cheap land and cheap air conditioning. That’s how they made Phoenix livable. I think we are going to see similar movement this time, but more to places like the Midwest and the Mountain West.

If you could make a realistic change to the way we’re consuming energy or to government policy, what would you do?

I think the most important thing is to have the president and the federal government set a vision, and say, “This is where we want to be in 10 years, and this is how we are going to get there.” We haven’t had that kind of energy vision for a long time. We need to have some sort of return to when we were building dams in the 1930s.

You said on the Energy Gang podcast that you’re optimistic about the future. Why is that?

I’m optimistic because we don’t have to pin our hopes on some as yet undiscovered technology. We have the technology we need, we just need to get the political will pushing in the right direction. My optimism is derived from the fact that I’m seeing right now a massive rebuilding of our energy system and I think within 10 to 20 years, we’ll be pretty far into it, and the concept of being 90 percent carbon-free with electricity by 2035 or 2040 is totally within our grasp.

The other reason I’m optimistic is this doesn’t require the federal government to make us all pay lots more money. It’s less expensive. We just have to make the transition. When the market and the public are all pushing in the same direction, one of these days government will get on board, at least in the U.S. That’s pretty powerful. Going back to why I got into journalism, why I went to Columbia, I’m interested in how social changes happen. A market is a very powerful source of change.

Benjamin M. Hogan is pursuing a master’s degree in Sustainability Science at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies. A certified financial analyst, he has spent over a decade working in finance, and the past seven years focused on investing in companies driving the energy transition toward a zero-carbon economy. Ben lives in Westchester with his wife and two little tykes.

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