Q&A: Industry veteran brings fossil fuel priority to Rice

Charles McConnell joined Rice University in August to head its new Energy and Environment Initiative.

His background in energy includes two years as vice president of carbon management at Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle Energy Technology and 31 years as an executive at Praxair, an industrial gases company.

Before joining Rice, he spent two years as an assistant U.S. energy secretary, heading the department’s fossil fuels office. In his tenure there, he focused on advancing carbon capture, utilization and storage. The technology involves trapping carbon dioxide released by sources such as coal-fired power plants and sending the greenhouse gas underground, sometimes to enhance oil well production.

He spoke with FuelFix recently about technology, energy policy and his new job. These are edited excerpts from the interview:

FuelFix: What are you doing at Rice?

A: The initiative is campuswide in the way it’s set up, to make a concerted effort to integrate all of the capabilities on campus into a better functioning unit as Rice University moves into the marketplace, looking for continued research dollars from the federal government and to increase the amount of industry involvement we have.

Although all the aspects of energy are incredibly important to us, the real focus of the initiative is on fossil fuels: environmental responsibility coupled with the energy security and energy affordability needs of the future, and the transformative areas of fossil research. We’re not backing away from being a university that’s proud to say we’re focused on fossil fuels. You can’t find that in many places around the country.

FuelFix: What were the circumstances of your departure from the Department of Energy?

A: Part of the driving force was, while we as an administration continued to espouse “all of the above” as the energy strategy, the department’s budget year-over-year increased approximately 3 percent annually while I was there. The budget for fossil energy was reduced by 45 percent in that same period. For me, that didn’t sound like “all of the above.”

I didn’t go into the job naively believing anything. Let’s just say, for me, the best word would be “disappointed,” primarily because the compelling impact for anything related to environmental technology will be far more impactful when applied to fossil fuels. So I think in some ways, the overinvestment in renewables is majoring in the minor, and unfortunately, many don’t see it that way.

I went in with a desire to try to do something and pick one thing I wanted to get accomplished. I felt we made a significant move forward. Secretary Steven Chu was also departing, and for me it was a natural transition.

FuelFix: How viable is carbon capture technology?

A: It’s very viable. A large portion of the enhanced oil recovery is coming from carbon dioxide sourced from naturally occurring wells. The corner that we’re about to turn in this country will require significantly more volume of CO2, and it’s naturally connected to the significant volumes of CO2 that we’re putting into the atmosphere.

FuelFix: There are new Environmental Protection Agency rules in the works that essentially could require carbon capture. Is that realistic yet?

A: No. I testified to that effect last year in Washington. My point was the EPA had a misguided attempt to accelerate the deployment of the technology, which had been well-advertised as ready in 2020. For EPA to declare it commercially ready — and frankly to mandate its use — in a passive-aggressive way, they’re ensuring that it will not get deployed. What the administration is saying is you can use coal, but you can only use it if you deploy a technology that’s not ready.

FuelFix: What do you say to environmentalists who argue that it’s a bastardization of the technology to use carbon dioxide captured from fossil fuel combustion to enhance production of fossil fuels?

A: First of all, the International Energy Agency already projected that within 50 years the world’s demand for energy will double. So if you’re a real environmentalist, you have to ask yourself the tough question: With that reality in front of me, how can I not want to spend technology money on fossil fuels to make it more environmentally responsible? It’s absolutely the most important thing we can do for real, environmental benefit. It’s far more effective than the deployment of the solar and the wind and all the other things, which are also important. But in terms of impact, unless we’re able to move forward with this, we’re not going to make the impact we need to make globally.

FuelFix: What do you think of the way the administration has handled Keystone XL?

A: I think it’s been turned into an unnecessary political football game. If you go back to the fundamentals of energy security — which include sound trading platforms, and exchanges with our friends around the world — for the life of me, I cannot imagine why it has not already been approved. All the arguments the environmental community continues to bring forward are without supporting data. But the emotions behind it have been a big part of what the administration has continued to try to be sensitive to — and in my mind, overweight in its concern.