How Natural Gas Can Help the Climate

Beyond the Fracking Wars

Environmentalists are facing a conundrum. Reducing greenhouse gas levels is urgent, although the greenies are remiss to accept natural gas as a viable vehicle, releasing 45 percent fewer carbon emissions than coal. Despite the possibilities, its imperfections remain a sore point among ecologists.

Eco-activists can be accused of taking the apocalyptic view while partisan conservatives have inflated the failures associated President Obama’s clean energy program. And while those critics reject the notion that climate change is the result of human endeavor, they do support the acceleration of this country’s most abundant natural resource: unconventional shale gas, which has also helped the United States reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 4 percent in recent years.

“Natural gas is an important transition to a carbon free economy provided we don’t go too many decades,” says Tom Wigley, climate scientists with University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, who participated in a conference sponsored by the Breakthrough Institute. “After 30 or 40 years, it won’t matter what we do.”

Here in this country, coal’s share of the electricity market has fallen from 50 percent in 2005 to 36 percent in 2012. Overseas, and especially in developing nations, coal remains the dominant fuel. According to the International Energy Agency in Paris, coal use will exceed that of oil by 2017. Consider: In 2011, China added 55,000 megawatts of coal-generated power.

At the same time, the estimates of recoverable natural gas in the United States have grown from 200 trillion cubic feet in 2005 to 350 trillion cubic feet in 2012. Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that technically recoverable shale gas resources outside this country are 7,300 trillion cubic feet. That’s 10 percent higher than the study done in 2011.

“The world is awash in natural gas,” says Robert Bryce, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Power Hungry. “The U.S. is leading the world. We have the rigs and the pipes. We own the minerals beneath our feet. Other nations are a decade or two behind.”

Green Politics

Bryce, who also addressed the Breakthrough Institute’s conference outside of San Francisco in late June, goes on to say that if natural gas is used to fuel vehicles, it could reduce global carbon dioxide levels by 20 percent. The issue here, though, is that the infrastructure is limited. That is, the lack of pipelines means that the gas must be flared as opposed to captured and transported. He says that Russia is flaring excessive amounts of natural gas, or enough to keep France fat and happy.

To be sure, the extraction of natural gas is not without fault. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been blamed for polluting ground water supplies and for being too water-intensive – a resource that is scarce and which must be disposed. Meantime, environmentalists are also worried about the incidental releases of methane, which is a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than carbon dioxide.

Carl Pope, former executive director of the Sierra Club, spoke at the Breakthrough conference and said that his group formed an alliance with the natural gas industry because the two had a common goal -- to prevent the building of 150 coal plants over a decade. But he said that the industry is actively trying to avert public scrutiny by failing to disclose the chemicals it uses to frack, or to ply loose the shale gas from the rocks where it is embedded deep underground.

Meantime, Pope disagrees with developers and says that the federal government has a role in the oversight of hydraulic fracturing. That’s because the process affects drinking water supplies and air emissions, which fall under the domain of the Environmental Protection Agency. He is, furthermore, concerned that the exporting of natural gas in the form of LNG would increase ecological damage and harm air quality while driving up prices for consumers.

“Natural gas can be part of a climate solution,” says Pope. “It is not so risky that it should be demonized. But it is not so intrinsically clean” that it should be solely relied upon to solve the problem of global warming.

A central theme to emerge from the Breakthrough Institute’s annual dialogue is the call to reform and renovate green politics – to get its advocates to embrace the advancement of new tools that can reduce pollution levels tied to power plants. To that end, such thinking would apply not just to drilling technologies but also to the production of renewable fuels, which conservatives must likewise accept.

Infighting creates delays that will defeat progress. Focusing on and then sharing improvements in technology, by contrast, will polish power production and leave future generations with cleaner air and water.

This post originally appeared on EnergyBiz.

Photo Credit: Garbriel Harber Photography