An Interview with Karen Harbert, President and CEO of the American Gas Association

Karen Harbert, President and CEO of the American Gas Asssociation (AGA).

Karen Harbert has a global view of the challenges and opportunities for natural gas in North America. The president and chief executive officer of the American Gas Association (AGA) launched her career working for the United States Agency for International Development. That became the starting point for a diverse career in energy with public and private projects that spanned the globe and helped Harbert to become a force in policy development and advocacy.

“I was able to see huge differences in countries that had access to energy resources, and those that did not,” Harbert tells ENERGY Magazine. “Energy is at the core of growing an economy and improving peoples’ lives.”

Since starting in her role with the AGA in April 2019, Harbert has continued promoting the essential role energy plays in supporting the country’s economic prosperity. For her, the association has a major role in educating Americans about the natural gas utility industry; AGA members’ everyday investment and focus on maintaining and enhancing safety of the nation’s natural gas delivery system, their obligation to ensure families and business have reliable and affordable energy when and where they need it, and natural gas’ part in reducing emissions to 25-year lows.

“It’s AGA’s job to tell these stories – to policymakers, to those who take advantage of our natural gas abundance and to the American people. We want this progress to continue. America’s natural gas industry is committed to delivering the energy Americans expect while at the same time reducing emissions by using our nation’s abundance of natural gas in a sustainable, environmentally responsible and safe way.”

Proven reserves of natural gas in the United States have more than doubled over the past decade, to almost 450 trillion cubic feet (Tcf), according to the U.S. Department of Energy, thanks to the shale revolution. In turn, estimates of future supply stand at 3,374 Tcf, according to the Potential Gas Committee’s biennial assessment, released in September 2019.

The increase of natural gas exploration and production has also led to increased public awareness of the fuel’s growing use and availability throughout the country. More Americans are using natural gas than ever before – some 178 million – and in diverse ways, from manufacturing to fueling efficient vehicles to generating power, and exporting it as liquified natural gas.

The AGA CEO wants everyone to know about the industry’s commitment to the communities in which they operate as they invest an average of US$824 every second of every day on enhancing the safety of natural gas distribution and transmission systems and to their future prosperity. “We have an abundance of natural gas and we need to increase pipeline capacity to meet this growing demand. In some areas, new pipeline proposals are met with local and political opposition. This is an opportunity for us, and our members in these areas, to lead a conversation about the essential role natural gas plays in our lives and the extreme consequences of curtailing access to this clean, abundant energy,” Harbert says.

“Similarly, there are some factions in some pockets of our nation that think we can eliminate the use of natural gas altogether. This requires thoughtful conversations about the tremendous advantages that natural gas delivers every day, but also is an opportunity to remind the greater community that we share their goals. Any plan to reduce emissions is going to have natural gas at its foundation—it is proven and undeniable.”

Harbert does not see energy as an either/or proposition when discussing competition with other energy sources on a domestic and international level, noting her experience in the industry has proven that a portfolio approach works best.

“More Americans are using natural gas than ever before – some 178 million – and in diverse ways.”

“Increased use of natural gas is the single largest factor in power sector emissions reductions because natural gas has replaced some of our coal consumption while enabling the growth of renewable energy. I think this trend will continue domestically,” she says. “Internationally, North American natural gas has reordered the global energy market as the availability of our affordable, abundant resource has loosened the grip of nations that wielded their energy monopoly as a weapon. It is a slow process for export terminals to get sited, permitted and built, but LNG exports will continue to create demand for our industry, and the availability of clean energy will make the promise of natural gas attainable in many more corners of our globe.”

The United States’ LNG export capacity is expected to more than double to 8.9 billion cubic feet per day by the end of 2019 as new terminals come online. Adding capacity to its three existing commercial export terminals, the U.S. is expected to become the world’s third-largest LNG exporter, after Australia and Qatar.

Harbert’s past work on energy policy and international affairs with the U.S. Department of Energy gives her a global perspective on the incredible impact reliable energy can have to a community. “We take so much for granted in the United States every day, that we have clean water to drink, readily available food for purchase, and reliable energy to fuel everything we do. When a community gets reliable energy, the sky truly is the limit.”

“The U.S. is expected to become the world’s third-largest LNG exporter, after Australia and Qatar.”

Harbert notes how just over a decade ago technological innovations in natural gas production unlocked an abundance of natural gas from shale formations, completely altering the continent’s energy landscape. That innovation is key to North America’s energy future.

“Everything about the way we extract, transport and deliver natural gas has changed, from the technology platforms that we operate to the pipeline materials that we use, and even the skillset of the women and men doing the work,” she says. “We are forward thinkers. We use drones, artificial intelligence and big data to improve our operations and become more efficient. When we talk about our energy future, we are talking about an industry that will continue to discover, innovate and evolve.”

Continued innovation throughout the entire natural gas industry spurs progress in producing, transporting and improving the ways people and industry use natural gas, she says.

“I see the natural gas market continuing to grow and widespread adoption of the innovative natural gas technologies available today in the residential and commercial sector. We must continue to underscore the fact that achieving our shared goal of reducing emissions while maintaining affordability, reliability and the quality of life that Americans enjoy is not possible without natural gas.”

“The quality of life that Americans enjoy is not possible without natural gas.”

In terms of cross-border relations, the U.S. and Canadian natural gas industries have much in common, and much to learn from one another, Harbert says. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Canada’s energy commodity exports to the U.S. reached $75.62 billion in 2017, nearly four times the $19.64 billion worth of energy commodity imports from the Unites States1. Thousands of kilometres of Canadian natural gas pipelines cross over and into the U.S., with billions of cubic feet of the fuel from both sides of the border being transported and used across the two countries.

“On a fundamental level, we are both taking the same molecule out of the ground and using the same methods to deliver it to customers that need and want it. We work closely with the Canadian Gas Association because we have members that have operations in both countries and our industries have similar opportunities to advance this industry and the benefits it brings to North Americans.”

“New technologies are making natural gas safer and cleaner.”

Harbert says her experience leading the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute for 10 years gave her a front-row seat to America’s shale revolution and the immense growth in the U.S. economy powered by affordable, abundant natural gas and served as great preparation to enter the downstream sector. “I am excited to be leading the American Gas Association now at a time when so much of what we built during the prior decade is coming to fruition. New technologies are making natural gas safer and cleaner. Utilities are partnering with research institutions and private sector companies to use natural gas in new ways and customers and our environment are the true beneficiaries. The future is bright.”

Dina O’Meara has been covering Canadian energy issues for almost 20 years.