Obama Schools Leonardo DiCaprio, Says “Natural Gas Means Less Greenhouse Gases”
Obama tells Anti-Fracking Celebrity: “Natural gas means less greenhouse gases” and “We’ve got to live in the real world”
The wide gap between national Democratic leaders and extremist anti-fracking celebrities was in the spotlight earlier this week at the “South By South Lawn” (SXSL) event, hosted at the White House, featuring President Obama. The event, inspired by the hugely successful South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, aims to “challenge young leaders to build on our progress toward an America that is more tolerant, fair, and full of opportunities.”
The event culminated with a panel on climate change, which was moderated, not by a climate scientist or journalist, but by Hollywood actor and anti-fossil fuel activist (and big fossil fuel consumer) Leonardo DiCaprio, who was in town to promote his new film on the topic.
While this may come as a surprise to DiCaprio, President Obama has long supported fracking for its economic and environmental benefits. At the event, the president told the audience that when it comes to lowering emissions from power sources the Keep-It-In-The-Ground movement has got it all wrong. Obama said:
“Interestingly enough, one of the reasons why we’ve seen a significant reduction of coal usage in the United States is not because of our regulations. It’s been because natural gas got really cheap as a consequence of fracking.
[Some environmentalists’] attitude is we got to leave that stuff in the ground if we’re going to solve climate change. And I get all that. On the other hand, the fact that we’re transitioning from coal to natural gas means less greenhouse gases.”
Obama went on to say we can’t just shut off fossil fuels because “we’ve got to live in the real world.”
This is far from the first time the administration has called the Keep-It-In-The-Ground movement unrealistic, nor is it the first time the president has touted the importance of domestic development of fracking-derived gas and oil to meet climate goals and protect energy security.
Obama has pointed out previously that natural gas “not only can provide safe, cheap power, it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy said, “Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change and support a robust clean energy market at home.” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz noted that natural gas bas “been a big contributor to our carbon reduction.”
Hillary Clinton’s running mate Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) put it well when he said,
“You know we’ve been improving our emissions in this country without agreeing to the Kyoto Accord, without congressional actions, because of innovations in the natural gas area.”
Even Hillary Clinton has touted the climate benefits of natural gas:
“Domestically produced natural gas has played a critical role in reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants. US CO2 emissions in 2015 reached their lowest level in 20 years due in large part to a shift from coal to natural power generation, helping to put the US in a strong negotiating position at the Paris climate conference. This shift has also yielded significant public health benefits, avoiding thousands of premature deaths and more than 100,000 asthma attacks in 2015 alone. With the right safeguards in place, natural gas can help meet our 2025 international climate commitment, in a way that keeps us on track with achieving a greater than 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.” (emphasis added)
The following chart shows just how dramatically emissions have fallen as shale gas production – and the fracking that makes it possible – has increased:
At one point, DiCaprio tried to goad the president into moving the discussion into “corporate greed from the oil and gas companies,” but that effort came up short when Mr. Obama pointed out that the world is more complicated than DiCaprio’s us-against-them formulation and that innovation from industry and others is critical, especially in developing countries. As Obama put it:
And particularly when it comes to poor countries — you take an example like India, where hundreds of millions of people still don’t have electricity on a regular basis, and they would like to have the standards of living that, if not immediately as high as ours, at least would mean that they’re not engaging in backbreaking work just to feed themselves, or keep warm — it’s completely understandable that their priority is to create electricity for their people.
This must have been uncomfortable for DiCaprio, having burned (not for the first or last time) thousands of gallons of jet fuel expecting to be feted as a hero by an audience of young people in the presence of the Leader of the Free World, only to be reminded of the (real world) strides we have made as well as the (real world) consequences of “keep it in the ground.”
Let’s hope his future activism will be informed by this reality so that we will get closer to advocating for real solutions – solutions which will ultimately come from scientists in the industry and academia, policymakers, and environmental advocates working together.