Toward a More Renewable Future

Bill Richardson, A70, F71, outlines path for U.S. during the Tufts Energy Conference
Bill Richardson at Tufts
“There needs to be more of an integration of science into government,” said Bill Richardson. Photo: Alonso Nichols
March 4, 2013

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Bill Richardson, A70, F71, H97, called for government and science to work together to develop innovative solutions to the nation’s energy problems and said renewable sources are the key to a secure energy future. A former governor of New Mexico who served as U.S. Secretary of Energy from 1998 to 2001, Richardson was the keynote speaker at the eighth annual Tufts Energy Conference on March 2.

In the 1970s and 1980s, said Richardson, U.S. energy policy focused on coal, “and as a result, we have aging 40-year-old plants and are weaning ourselves out of it.” And while the country needs to include all energy sources in the mix—oil, gas and even nuclear and cleaner coal—he said he believes “the future of this country and the world is in renewable energy, and natural gas will be a bridge to getting there.” Many countries now claim renewable energy as the centerpiece of their energy policies, he noted. “Even in the United Arab Emirates, the commitment to renewable is increasing,” he said.

Richardson also urged that more research be done to develop ways to protect the environment; he’s concerned that not enough is taking place. “In other words,” he said, “there needs to be more of an integration of science into government . . . innovation, science and energy efficiency will be the key.”

The federal government needs to take the lead on environmental issues, said Richardson. He said he was encouraged when President Obama talked about climate change during his recent State of the Union speech.

When he was New Mexico’s governor, Richardson said, he was unhappy that the United States did not abide by the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty addressing climate change, so he pushed for legislation requiring 25 percent of energy use in the state to come from renewable sources. He also lined up other states to pass similar legislation, though the number of states involved has since fallen. “We did it by regulation,” he said, “but you need a federal effort; you can’t go state by state.”

During the question-and-answer period that followed his talk, students asked Richardson about his stand on the national campaign for colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel companies. (The affiliated group on campus is Tufts Divest.) He suggested that instead of divestment, students engage in a dialogue with the companies and ask them to provide more money for research and investment in renewable sources.

Another questioner asked his opinion on the Keystone Pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada into the United States. Told a recent government report said the impact would be minimal, Richardson agreed with the questioner, who disputed the report and said the pipeline could well cause environmental problems. The Obama administration will decide whether the pipeline will be constructed, and Richardson said decisions must be made in a rigorous fashion.

“You’re going to be told by your professors and by your parents that when you make a decision to be balanced, to balance all interests. But you can’t always do that. You have to choose,” he said. “You may have to choose between energy development and protecting a Native American shrine. Eventually you’ve got to take a stand, and I think Keystone is one of those times.”

Richardson also encouraged students to run for office at all levels in order to take a role in policy and decision making. He told the audience at the Cabot Center on the Medford/Somerville campus that he has been asked by scientists involved in climate change and environmental research how to get involved in politics and his answer is “Run for office.”

Students have a responsibility to become involved, Richardson said. “You’re special in that you got admitted to one of the most selective schools in the country, and you have an active president and a faculty that’s as good as any,” he said. “I want each of you to think: What can I do to promote public policy in what I care about?”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu