For over 35 years, Oklahoman entrepreneur and energy futurist Robert A. Hefner III ’53 has had a vision: an America fueled not by coal and oil, but by natural gas. As he explains in his 2009 book The Grand Energy Transition, Hefner believes that natural gas can meet America’s energy needs while ending our dependence on foreign oil, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and revitalizing the U.S. economy.
Hefner’s thesis is that human civilization is entering the next phase in our energy evolution: from inefficient, dirty solid fuels (wood and coal) to liquids (oil and gasoline) to gases (natural gas and wind power). Each past transition has sparked a quantum leap in technological and economic growth, and Hefner believes that natural gas – allied with wind and solar power – will be as important to the 21st century as coal and oil were to the 19th and 20th. Better yet, the technology and infrastructure for that transition already exist and need only be scaled up. Hefner calls natural gas “a transformation fuel” and “the bridge fuel to our sustainable future.”
A Lifelong Crusade
Hefner became interested in natural gas while studying geology at the University of Oklahoma. In 1959 he co-founded the GHK Company, a pioneer in the field of “deep gas”: wells drilled to depths of 15,000 feet or more. Hefner soon became convinced that America’s usable reserves of natural gas were far greater than anyone had previously believed – enough for at least 100 years.
While Hefner is confident that natural gas is the future, convincing others has been a protracted struggle, testing his intellectual courage and resolve. Although his lobbying led to a boom in gas drilling in the early ‘70s, he says GHK was often a hair’s breadth away from bankruptcy. His efforts faced a major setback in 1977, when, despite Hefner’s passionate testimony, energy experts (many, Hefner says, hired by big oil) persuaded the Carter administration to pass legislation sharply restricting natural gas development, which led to a resurgence of coal. The ground lost by the gas industry during those years has only recently been regained.
Natural gas remains controversial, due mainly to concerns about the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a drilling technique to release gas trapped inside deep layers of shale. Environmentalists charge that the fracture fluid can contaminate groundwater and even trigger small earthquakes. Hefner counters that the risks associated with fracking are far less than the hazards posed by coal, although he has called for rigorous standards to ensure that drillers do not damage the environment.
Hefner is accustomed to being perceived as a maverick, but he has won a growing number of high-profile supporters, including media mogul Ted Turner, former CIA director John Deutch (now an MIT professor) and former Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger, while Hefner’s speaking engagements at venues like the Aspen Institute routinely draw large crowds. In 2010, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
An Unbounded Thinker Honors His Mentor
In his 2012 documentary, Hefner says the inspiration for his career of unbounded thinking was Ray Alf, whom Hefner describes as “a wonderful mentor” who taught him “to always challenge conventional wisdom and always look beyond the limits.” To honor Alf, Hefner has established the Raymond M. Alf Inspirational & Unbounded Teaching Chair in Science and the Robert A. Hefner III Endowment for Excellence in Science at The Webb Schools.
Hefner will speak at a special convocation for Webb students and faculty on the evening of Tuesday, October 2.