Energy Leader Mike Ming Earns Distinguished Alumni Award
He began his career at a time when energy scarcity threatened the U.S. economy and national security. Now he would like to have an honest conversation about managing abundance.
C. Michael "Mike" Ming, '80, MS '87, thinks decarbonization is not as hard as we're making it. A nationally recognized energy leader and former Oklahoma Secretary of Energy, he advocates for urgency and an open-minded, systems approach to producing more energy with fewer negative impacts and improving equity of access.
For his achievements, Ming was honored with Stanford Earth’s Distinguished Alumni Award on October 16, 2020. The award recognizes highly significant, long-lasting contributions to the civil, government, business, or academic communities by members of the school’s alumni body.
"Mike has an incredibly deep understanding of the science and business of energy resources," said Stephan Graham, Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, in presenting the award during a Zoom ceremony attended by more than 60 people. "His contributions have generated lasting collaborations among government, industry, and academia to accelerate our global energy system transition."
A global view from the Farm
Ming will be the first to admit that he finds the topic of energy all-consuming. "If you sit next to me on an airplane,” he jokes, “you are going to talk about energy and you are going to like it." He is referring to his seatmates' lack of choice, but few people have such a broad view on the energy system—or such contagious enthusiasm for it. His passion and global outlook have their roots at Stanford, he says.
Transferring from the U.S. Air Force Academy after deteriorating eyesight dashed his hopes for pilot training, Ming arrived at Stanford ready to follow family members into the oil and gas industry. As a petroleum engineering major, he had the opportunity to work with internationally renowned faculty including Marshall Standing and Hank Ramey. But it was Professor A.J. Horn, '39, who impressed on him the systems orientation that still guides him today.
Horn taught his signature course, Survey of the Energy Industries, to more than 5,000 students during his career. Traveling to class on an energy-efficient moped, he exposed the pitfalls of America's dependence on petroleum and hailed both conservation and diversification of energy sources as part of the solution.
"That course instilled in me a love of energy as something bigger than just one source," including every kind of renewable and a special emphasis on energy efficiency, says Ming. He later became Horn's head teaching assistant.
It sounds counterintuitive, but while decarbonization and energy growth can conflict, they're not necessarily incompatible.
Energy efficiency was as top of mind in the 1970s as it is now, but for different reasons, Ming explained to the students, faculty, and alumni who gathered on Zoom for his seminar, Creating a Better Global Energy Future. "When I was a student and early in my career, we were in a position of total energy scarcity," he remembers. "We were paying extraordinary amounts of money to the Middle East oil producers. We were worried about national security, about the economy, about keeping the lights on. Why would we waste energy when it was so hard to find?"
With his bachelor's degree in hand, Ming took a job as a drilling engineer in Southwest Wyoming. His girlfriend, Diane Parker, '81, worked as a chemical engineer in Salt Lake City and would visit him at the rig. On one such visit, he proposed in a double wide trailer at the site. They have been married 38 years.
The Mings soon moved to Oklahoma City, where Mike worked for an independent oil producer, earning a master's degree in engineering management from Stanford along the way. In 1987 he and two of his colleagues started their own exploration and production company, K. Stewart Petroleum Corp, beginning a 25-year business partnership and lifelong friendship.
Meanwhile, something unexpected happened: Energy scarcity gave way to energy abundance in America. The transition came on rapidly in the mid-2000s when shale gas became a viable domestic resource just as wind and solar energy were also ramping up. This is not the world's first energy transition, says Ming, citing shifts from wood to coal and coal to oil, but it has certainly been the fastest and it represents a complete change in mindset.
"In some ways our role now is to manage this abundance rather than create it," he says. "We've got to manage carbon; we've got to manage air, land, and water impacts; and we've got to manage equitable distribution around the world."
More than 1 billion people around the world lack access to electricity altogether. "The developing world deserves energy to increase their standard of living, which will improve education, health, and other outcomes," says Ming. "The world is going to need more energy, not less, and we're going to have to do it with less impact."
A national platform
Thanks to A.J. Horn, Ming always had an eye on the big picture of energy and figured his career would gravitate in that direction. In 2006 he was appointed inaugural president of the nonprofit Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA), a consortium of U.S. energy companies, universities, independent research organizations, and foundations conducting energy research under U.S. Department of Energy oversight. Mark Zoback, Stanford's Benjamin M. Page Professor in geophysics, was impressed with the leadership Ming showed in working with universities around the country. "Mike was committed to clean energy solutions before terms like 'energy transition' were in common usage," he says.
In 2011, Ming was tapped by Oklahoma's newly elected governor, Mary Fallin, to be her Secretary of Energy. They prepared the state's first comprehensive energy plan, which sought to optimally integrate diverse resources, including abundant natural gas and wind, and to prioritize energy efficiency. Oklahoma soon counted itself among the top three wind-energy producing states in the nation. Their energy efficiency campaign leveraged the state's purchasing authority to set new standards for state offices, universities, and vehicles. Fallin and then-governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper built a bipartisan coalition of 26 governors across the country to purchase compressed natural gas vehicles for their fleets, providing a degree of certainty for automakers dipping their toes into the market for alternative-fuel vehicles.
It was while Ming was in this leadership role that Oklahoma experienced increased seismic activity associated with unconventional oil and gas development. "That was when I got to know Mike best," says Zoback, who is also director of the Stanford Natural Gas Initiative and co-director of the Stanford Center for Induced and Triggered Seismicity. His team's research ultimately linked the induced earthquakes to wastewater injection.
"What Mike did in his critical role was to reject the denial of the oil and gas industry and solicit advice from experts outside Oklahoma, without taking sides," he says. "He knew that science was going to be critically important to understand the best way forward. He made sure that scientific input was available throughout the state of Oklahoma to guide the path toward effective regulation."
We tend to view energy in discrete silos instead of as a system, creating small wars instead of figuring out how to make one plus one equal three.
During Ming's tenure, Oklahoma also achieved key reductions in air pollution, including from mercury and other toxins. Tackling these so-called "criteria pollutants," some of which were responsible for a chronic regional haze, also reduced carbon emissions when several coal plants were replaced by natural gas and wind power. He says it sometimes surprises people to learn that Oklahoma's practical portfolio of natural gas, wind, and energy efficiency would put it in compliance with the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, were it still in effect. "Our carbon emissions are really low here just because of the way we've optimized our energy system," he says. "If we can do that in Oklahoma, we can do it anywhere."
"It sounds counterintuitive, but while decarbonization and energy growth can conflict, they're not necessarily incompatible," he explains. One size does not fit all, though. What works in one place might not work in another. "Understanding these differences, especially between the developed and developing world, is critical."
A balanced approach
Ming feels energy should not be a political issue, but he sees plenty of partisanship getting in the way of productive conversation. "Democrats have been really impractical on this and the Republicans have been hard-headed. So now if you mention climate change, everybody immediately goes to their corners," he says. "We tend to view energy in discrete silos instead of as a system, creating small wars instead of figuring out how to make one plus one equal three.”
In response to those who doubt the need to decarbonize, he likes to paraphrase former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz: "The odds of your house burning down are low, but you are still going to have homeowner's insurance because of the economics of it," he says. "CO2 emissions present a risk. What kind of insurance are we willing to pay for?"
Ming believes the way forward involves focused attention in three equally important areas: technology, policy, and markets. He points to carbon capture and storage (CCS) as one area in which all three come together, citing rapidly advancing technology and the federal tax policy known as 45Q, which offers generous credits for each ton of carbon sequestered.
He gets frustrated with people who reject CCS and say it is an excuse to burn fossil fuels farther into the future. "One of the best places we can put CO2 in the ground is in depleted pore volumes," he says, referring to the tiny spaces between mineral grains in subsurface rock formations where oil and natural gas once sat and where significant amounts of carbon dioxide gas might be accommodated in the process of restoring natural pore pressure.
And, although some critics want to do away with them, energy companies have many of the attributes needed for the solution, he says. "They own the pore space, they have the infrastructure and the subsurface expertise, and they are equipped to work at scale." Rejecting CCS as an imperfect solution means that we are still continuing to burn fossil fuels—but without sequestering the carbon,” he says. "We are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good."
A steady advisor and volunteer
Ming left government in 2013 when General Electric recruited him to develop and lead a world-class energy research center in Oklahoma City. He did so until he retired from then-Baker Hughes, a GE company, in 2018.
Retirement being a relative term, he remains an adjunct professor in the University of Oklahoma's Executive MBA in Energy and Energy Executive Management programs. He teaches Global Perspectives in Energy, paying forward the lessons he learned in A.J. Horn's class. Meanwhile, his close friend and former Stanford classmate Jane Woodward, '83, MBA '87, and her team at MAP Energy teach the latest generation of Horn's class at Stanford: Understanding Energy in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Bringing things full circle, Mike's and Diane's son, Zachary Ming, '12, MS '13, served as her head teaching assistant.
Mike Ming also remains a committed volunteer for Stanford Earth. A long-serving member of the school's advisory board who has worked with five deans, he was among the key volunteers who modernized the externally managed Petroleum Investments Fund, established by alumni in the 1950s to generate unrestricted funding for school programs. They multiplied its value by a factor of 25.
"That provided incredibly valuable support, particularly for the startup needs of newly recruited young faculty," says Franklin M. "Lynn" Orr, Jr., Keleen and Carlton Beal Professor in petroleum engineering, emeritus, who was dean at the time. He adds, "Mike is thoughtful, diplomatic, pragmatic, and kind, and he has a delightful, quiet sense of humor that helps navigate tough challenges. He has demonstrated conclusively to me that working hard with dedicated colleagues on projects that matter builds friendships that last a lifetime."
Indeed, Ming's superpower is his ability to find common ground with stakeholders of all stripes. "When my gas friends told me I was too windy and my wind friends told me I was too gassy, I pretty much knew I was in the right place policy-wise," he says. "I'm known among some of the oil and gas folks as very green. But that's where the world needs to be."
Recording of Mike Ming's full seminar, Creating a Better Global Energy Future
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