Environmentalists Struggle with Natural Gas While Conservatives Battle Clean Energy

Ken Silverstein

August 1, 2013

are facing a conundrum. Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) levels is urgent,
although the environmental advocates are reluctant to accept natural gas as a
viable vehicle, releasing 45% fewer carbon emissions than coal. Despite the
possibilities, its imperfections remain a sore point among ecologists.

Eco-activists can be accused of taking an apocalyptic view while partisan
conservatives may have inflated the failures associated with President Obama’s
clean energy program. And while those critics reject the notion that climate
change is the result of human actions, 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% 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, a climate scientist 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.”

In the United States, coal’s
share of the electricity market has fallen from 50% in 2005 to 36% 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 (EIA) predicts that technically recoverable
shale gas resources outside this country are 7,300 trillion cubic feet. That is
10% 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 2

Green Politics

Bryce, who also addressed the Breakthrough
Institute’s conference outside of San Francisco, goes on to say that if natural
gas is used to fuel vehicles, it could reduce global carbon dioxide levels by
20%. 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 that must be disposed. Meantime, environmentalists
are also worried about the incidental releases of methane, which is a GHG 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 they 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 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 liquefied natural gas (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.