People were furious with Karen Harbert in 2005. Gas was expensive, hitting an all-time average high of $2.50 per gallon nationwide in August. Prices spiked higher in certain pockets of the country. The Gulf region, home to rows of petroleum refineries, was reeling from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and from her desk at the Energy Department, Harbert was trying to coax the market to equilibrium.
“I got put in charge of the energy response,” Harbert says. She notes that in some parts of the country, “gasoline prices went up to $4.50, and everybody was stark raving mad at me.”
The International Energy Agency, a network of countries created to maintain a steady oil supply after the embargoes of the 1970s, released 60 million barrels of crude oil, gasoline and other fuels into the world marketplace. The U.S. contributed about half.
“That calmed things down,” Harbert says. “Not overnight. But it did it in a way so that by the time everybody was celebrating New Year’s Eve, things were back in check.”
Years later, she’s back playing a technician’s role — this time for the American Gas Association, the Washington-headquartered trade group that represents hundreds of natural gas companies before Congress and the federal government.
The AGA named Harbert its new president and chief executive in April, succeeding Dave McCurdy, after she worked on energy policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the conservative, pro-business lobbying organization.
At the Energy Department, Harbert was assistant secretary for policy and international affairs, and before that posting, she did a stint at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
In an interview in her office, which contains “I Heart Natural Gas” pillows in the waiting room and has a clear view of the Senate side of the Capitol, Harbert says safety and pipeline reauthorization are AGA’s top goals.
“It’s our highest priority because it’s our members’ highest priority,” she says of safety.
This winter, a gas pipeline exploded in the Merrimack Valley, in northeastern Massachusetts, killing one resident and injuring dozens. Similar small-scale explosions in Durham, N.C.; Firestone, Colo.; and Harrisburg, Pa., have raised worries about the proximity of pipelines — such as the PennEast line, slated to run through eastern Pennsylvania into New Jersey — to population centers.
“Our job is to advocate for the best policies, the best regulations that ensure safety and reliability and affordability,” Harbert says. “We want to raise the profile of natural gas,” she says. “It’s a tremendous story of what has happened in a fairly short amount of time in this country.”
Since the mid-2000s, the U.S. market for natural gas exports has more than tripled, according to Energy Information Administration figures.
When President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April to speed the pipeline permitting process, the AGA welcomed it.
“If you look at the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, it should have already been built and put into operation,” Harbert says of the project that would snake through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. Dominion Energy and Duke Energy are behind the project. “They’re still waiting on permits,” she says. “And so the time that you’re waiting is just costing money.”
Barack Obama’s administration famously called natural gas a “bridge fuel” to jump from a fossil fuel-centric economy to a lower-carbon one. And during that administration, natural gas began driving coal-fired power plants out of business.
“Natural gas is squarely in the middle of being part of the solution of addressing climate change,” Harbert says. “Not only is it less carbon intensive, obviously than coal, it makes renewables viable.”
There is a symbiosis between the two sources. The cost to put renewables on the grid is dropping sharply, but since wind and solar are intermittent, utilities can turn to gas to fill in when demand spikes.
When the Sierra Club and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined in 2011 to launch Beyond Coal, a campaign to shutter coal stations nationwide, the gas companies reacted with a mix of support and unease.
In delivering the keynote address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last month, Bloomberg, the billionaire activist said he was creating a new campaign, Beyond Carbon, and would donate $500 million to put the U.S. coal industry out of business.
The group says its goal is to “stop the rush to build new gas plants.”
While natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than coal, the growth of the natural gas industry, in the U.S. and abroad, has released a glut of methane, which is about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
“We’re in a race against time with climate change, and yet there is virtually no hope of bold federal action on this issue for at least another two years,” Bloomberg said.
The message was clear: Natural gas is the new coal, and it’s next on his list.
Still, sounding the death knell of her industry is premature, Harbert says.
“I think those that would like to write the obituary for natural gas really don’t understand the environmental attributes and contributions that natural gas has made, will make and could make,” she says.
However, the methane leakage is worrisome, she says. After the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump proposed rolling back a rule that pressed companies to capture methane flaring, oil and gas companies lobbied against that decision.
Industry giants — BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell included — told the EPA they supported the provision.
“So they are profit-motivated to capture that,” Harbert says. “But I’m not denying that there isn’t still a methane problem.”
Asked how the Green New Deal — the sweeping climate proposal left-leaning Democrats in Congress are pushing to decarbonize the economy — has changed the climate policy debate in Washington, Harbert says it brought “enthusiasm” to the topic and “mobilized new constituents.”
But since the Green New Deal is light on details, it hinders pragmatic steps to address climate change, according to Harbert.
“It is a distraction when it is so big, so opaque about how to get there, that it does a disservice to the conversation,” she says.
As the planet warms, climate change remains a top concern for Democratic primary voters and as Congress debates how to rein in runaway greenhouse gases, Harbert wants to help shape climate talks in Washington.
“Climate change is on the table,” she says. “We want to be part of the discussion. As you will know, in this town, if you are not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
She pauses, adding, “And we have no intention of being on the menu.”
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