With oil prices now around $100 per barrel, the future of energy will not resemble its past or present.
Students at the Yale Law School and Yale School of Management came to this conclusion during a joint-sponsored conference at the Law School on Friday — fittingly titled “The Future of Energy” — at which the attendees discussed and heard lectures on issues of energy, the environment and the law.
Bryan Townsend LAW ’09, who chaired the event, said the conference was the product of discussions last spring between students at the Law School and School of Management. He said the students wanted to come together to discuss and raise campus awareness of energy issues from both legal and business perspectives.
“Students flip on a light switch, but they don’t think about all that it takes to make that light go on,” he said.
The conference’s seven sessions collectively featured 15 speakers from state and national government, major corporations, law firms and academia. Daniel Esty LAW ’86, a professor in both the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Law School, began the day with an introduction that stressed the importance of energy issues today.
“It’s a fertile moment for change,” said Esty, who recently authored a book, “Green to Gold,” on corporate sustainability.
He said Americans are eager to see a new direction in the future of energy and that long-term solutions will require bold thinking. He lauded the conference’s organizers for recognizing this reality and bringing together students with diverse interests.
But Esty said the most viable solutions to energy challenges come from the private sector, not government intervention.
One of the government-sector speakers, Guy Caruso, administrator at the Energy Information Administration, said his organization’s work — the publication of policy-neutral projections — is effective in showing politicians what the future of energy consumption and production will look like without any policy changes.
“Our projections can be useful because they tell politicians, ‘We can’t live with that,’” he said.
Caruso noted the difficulty of making predictions about energy’s future because of fluctuations in oil prices. His organization’s latest predictions, from 2007, which estimate that fossil fuels will remain the dominant source of energy in the near future, used $59 per barrel as a reference price for oil.
Thomas Weil, a Yale lecturer and retired lawyer who attended the conference, said the inconsistency of oil prices makes the “Future of Energy” conference’s timing even more significant in the discussion of what he called the most critical issue facing the world today.
Weil said he agrees with Esty about the importance of business innovation to the future of energy.
“The legal aspect is important,” he said. “But it’s certainly not the most important unless we start mandating people’s behaviors, which we shouldn’t do.”
Roberto Jimenez SOM ’09, a self-described environmentalist who also attended the conference, said Yale students are in a unique position to address issues pertaining to the environment.
Jimenez said students at the School of Management focus on how market pressures can influence the future of energy, but other schools also evaluate important environmental issues.
“The School of Management is looking at how we can drive business to do things differently,” he said. “The Law School is looking at how laws can provide incentives and disincentives for different behavior, and the Forestry school is looking at the science and technology behind it all.”
Townsend said he is happy with how the conference went, although he had expected higher attendance — fewer than 100 people attended each session. He said he hopes the conference will serve as a catalyst for further discussion and course offerings concentrating on the future of energy both around the University and within the Law School in particular.
“These are issues that Yale University has been a leader in and done a very good job in addressing,” he said. “Yale Law School could use this conference as an opportunity to expand its offerings.”
The Law School provided financial and logistical support for the conference, Townsend said.
Law School spokeswoman Janet Conroy said the Law School runs an Environmental Protection Clinic that offers students academic credit for working with environmental law or policy on behalf of environmental groups, government agencies or international bodies.
The Yale Law & Business Society, the Yale Environmental Law Association and the Yale School of Management Energy Club all co-sponsored the conference.