Tim Ryan talks natural gas policy and the need for ‘radical pragmatism’

The former presidential candidate and current co-chair of the Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future leadership council spoke with City & State during a recent visit to Pittsburgh.

Tim Ryan speaks at City & State’s 2023 Pennsylvania Energy Summit

Tim Ryan speaks at City & State’s 2023 Pennsylvania Energy Summit Mike Maxson

Fresh out of Congress after serving in Washington, D.C. for 10 terms, Tim Ryan has shifted his sights to natural gas policy as the co-chair of Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future – a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of natural gas to address climate change. 

During a visit to Pittsburgh for City & State’s 2023 Pennsylvania Energy Summit, Ryan talked about the role of natural gas in lowering emissions, the impact of carbon pricing and the need for permitting reform across the U.S.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

There’s a lot of talk about meeting climate goals in Pennsylvania and beyond. In Pennsylvania, the governor wants to hit 30% renewables by 2030 and shoot even higher in 2050. Given that natural gas does emit carbon, is it possible to reach these goals with it in the mix?

I think it’s essential, because the question is: How do we get off of coal? Oil is not great either. We saw that from 2005 to 2019, when America led the world in carbon reduction because of natural gas being cheap and displacing coal. I encourage people to look around the world – in Vietnam, Thailand, China – you look at these other countries still burning really dirty coal. You look at Russia – their natural gas is flaring and leaking. It’s nowhere near as clean as here in the United States. 

So we have to look at it in that context of the world, the globe. In eastern Ohio, where I’m from, and Western Pennsylvania, we are part of the solution – you don’t get there without natural gas. And it’s not just me, it’s John Kerry saying this, Obama Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz is saying this. Kerry was a liberal Democratic senator from Massachusetts for like 30 years, so it’s not like we’re talking to right-wing Republicans. We have leaders in the Democratic Party that understand this, and so our mission really is to get that down to other leaders in the party. 

How do policymakers strike that balance between being good stewards of the earth and the climate, but also trying to take advantage of the benefits, both in terms of energy and the economy, that natural gas has to offer?

I think there needs to be a radical pragmatism where we’re looking at our options, and we’re looking at not sinking the global economy by immediately banning fossil fuels. It’s about emissions: What’s moving us in that direction to start hitting those goals? And if you’re not on track to hit the goals, the 2050 goals become impossible if you’re not hitting the 2030 goals. Now you’re talking about 2 degrees and 3 degrees if you start missing your goals. What’s going to get us from here to 2030 and 2035? It’s got to be displacing coal, and so we make significant steps with natural gas. 

I think we have the added benefit of saying that we want to reshore manufacturing – the CHIPS Act and electric cars, trucks, batteries –  all this stuff we want to build. You’ve got to have manufacturing and the way you out-compete people in manufacturing is, you have lower energy costs for the people who are making the stuff – another huge benefit. 

We want to reshore, we want to make America strong, we want to reduce emissions – we still need baseload energy. That’s why we’ve been very adamant about saying this is a marriage. This is a marriage between natural gas and renewables. Neither can do it on their own. So we need to be in a partnership and that’s really where we want the Democrats and progressives to understand this is a process. So some radical pragmatism, I think, is in order.

Do you think this debate over natural gas is made out to be too much of an either-or equation? 

Yeah, I think so. I’m an environmentalist. I ran for the Senate, and we had the support of the environmental groups, and I’ve got a really good voting record. I voted for the energy bill back in 2009. We lost the House in large part to the issue of Obamacare and the energy bill in the House that we passed. I’ve got the scars to prove it. But it’s about how we get there – and you get there by reducing emissions. You can’t argue with the significant reduction of emissions that natural gas provides by displacing coal and oil. So I think we’ve got to just continue to have those conversations. Our goals aren’t separate. We’ve got to reverse climate change. Now the conversation is, how do we get there?

Some radical pragmatism, I think, is in order.
– Former U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan

It can’t be an ego thing: “I’m more for it than you are.’ We’re all for it, but here’s our strategy to get there. I think when you come from that place of: “I gotta win the argument” – we’re gonna have gridlock for another 10 years. So now it’s 2032, 2033 and we haven’t made any progress. So what’s better: that scenario where you’re holding the line or the scenario where we’ve displaced coal by 2032? We’re rolling now and we are making these huge investments in the wind and solar – and who knows, hydrogen may pop by then because of the money we put in Inflation Reduction Act. It’s not like we’re like saying, “No to wind, no to solar, no to hydrogen, no to research – not anything. We’re going all in on natural gas.” Now that may be the Republican position on it, some of the extremists on that side, but that’s not our position. This pragmatism should be appealing to them.

Pennsylvania has been attempting to enter a regional consortium to put a price on carbon emissions, particularly from the energy sector. A lot of water unions out here in Western Pennsylvania, energy companies, you name it – they’ve expressed concerns that this will essentially price them out of business, that they’ll have to pay to emit carbon and other low-cost plans to shutter. What kind of impact do you see carbon pricing having on the natural gas industry as we try to make this transition toward cleaner sources? Is this going to inhibit that goal by causing economic harm?

I think figuring out a way to disincentivize the pollutants and particulate matter is a good thing. I don’t know if a state-by-state thing is good as a way to do it, but I can speak for the natural gas industry. I can’t speak as well for the oil industry, but I know the natural gas leaders and they are going all-in on doing everything they can to reduce carbon.

We’ve got to reverse climate change. Now the conversation is: How do we get there?
– Former U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan

When you put a price on it, you incentivize research in carbon capture, you incentivize the latest, greatest technology. In the natural gas industry, they’re already showing that kind of leadership. If you want to ignore the issue around climate, then you will probably end up paying in Pennsylvania or wherever. But I think overall, you want to use more carrots than sticks. 

Pennsylvania has a law currently that sets electricity generation requirements for different sources. Would updating a policy like that to set greater goals for natural gas production, for solar, for wind – is that an example of this partnership approach? 

Yeah, I think it’s great and it puts everybody on a level playing field, too. So it’s not like one company’s going to invest in it and the other one’s not. The other one who doesn’t put the capital expenditures out ends up paying, taking it on the chin, at least in the short term. So it puts everybody on a level playing field and I think that’s a good thing.

Last year, state lawmakers approved a tax credit program to provide credits to companies involved in the process of creating and developing hydrogen hubs. Piggybacking off of your hydrogen comments, I’m curious if you can speak to the use of tax credits and their impact on energy development projects. We haven’t just seen the hydrogen hub in Pennsylvania – we’ve had them for petrochemical plants and things of that nature. In terms of fostering more development and more projects and more jobs, what do you make of the tax credit approach? Is that too much picking your own winners and losers or does it help?

I think it helps. There always has to be a government role in catalyzing that. At some point, the government has to get out, but I think when you’re talking about nurturing new industries, like blue hydrogen or whatever, I think it’s really smart. Generally speaking, I don’t like tax abatements and stuff because it’s a race to the bottom with states. But when you’re talking about being a state that has high levels of natural gas and you want to be a leader going into the hydrogen play, I think it makes a lot of sense and I think it’s a good use of taxpayer money. 

Are there any major energy policy changes – whether at the federal level, at the state level – on your wishlist?

I think first and foremost has got to be permitting reform. We have to have it. The money in the Inflation Reduction Act will not be deployed if we don’t update the grid, if we don’t have new transmission lines and the permitting process now, whether you’re talking about natural gas pipelines or transmission lines for electrification – in both instances the permitting process is an absolute nightmare. These companies will spend anywhere from six to seven years trying to get a permit. You’re talking about 11 different federal agencies that have their fingers on this stuff. It’s nuts. It’s everything that people hate about government. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, this is insanity. It’s 2023 and we still have not figured out how to streamline some of this stuff. I can order a book off of Amazon or whatever and it’s at my house in like three days. We can’t figure out the permitting process here. So that, to me, is probably the No. 1 issue, and it stands almost alone, I think, in all of these different worlds about what needs to get done.