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The Fractured Left

Good news on natural gas is bad news for a Democratic party full of environmental true-believers

Apr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By ROBERT H. NELSON
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Much has been said recently about the deep tensions within the Republican party. Far less has been said about a sharp division arising inside the Democratic party. 

Anti-fracking protesters in New York, August 2012

Anti-fracking protesters in New York, August 2012


That latter tension was front and center recently when former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Daily News drawing on his experience overseeing extensive natural gas development in Pennsylvania. “If we choose to embrace natural gas, it will help us get past a number of significant economic and environmental challenges,” Rendell wrote. “On the other hand, if we let fear carry the day, we will squander another key moment to move forward together.” 

Rendell soon came under strong environmentalist attack, among other things for failing to disclose that he was a consultant to a private-equity firm with stakes in a number of energy companies, some with natural gas interests.

The Obama administration is feeling the heat as well. Ignoring objections from many environmentalists, the White House in March nominated Ernest Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green professor of physics and engineering systems at MIT, to be secretary of energy. As director of the MIT Energy Initiative, Moniz assembled an all-star cast of MIT physical and social scientists to produce a June 2011 report on “The Future of Natural Gas.” That report concluded that “for more stringent [long-run] CO2 emissions reductions, further de-carbonization of the energy sector will be required; but natural gas provides a cost-effective bridge to such a low-carbon future [italics in the original]” over the next few decades. 

When Moniz’s nomination was announced he was promptly attacked by environmental groups, which raised suspicions about his relationship with ICF International, a consulting firm that has done work for the oil and gas industry. Left unsaid was that ICF also has done work for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)—and is in fact the go-to modeling firm for anyone wanting to do computer simulations of policy options involving the U.S. energy system.

In Colorado, Democratic governor John Hickenlooper has been a strong supporter of the “fracking” technologies now being used to extract oil and natural gas from shale. Hickenlooper has said that he sees increased gas production as advancing America’s economic and environmental objectives. On April 1, Hickenlooper was heckled at a speech at the University of Denver law school; as one protester was being removed from the hall, he shouted, “We’re surrounded by oil and gas and it’s killing us!”

Recognizing the significant environmental benefits of natural gas as a source of electric power, some prominent national environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and NRDC, have mostly supported the increase in domestic gas production—and at least by implication the use of fracking to obtain the gas. For most in the environmental movement, however, opposition to fracking has become a virtually sacred cause.

Reflecting this, perhaps, the language of some of fracking’s opponents has become extreme. One environmentalist blogger, for example, wrote recently that “fracking is madness, a sign of a society gone completely insane and bent on self-destruction.” Another offered this: “The more we learn about a gas-drilling practice called hydraulic fracturing—or ‘fracking’—the more we see it as a zenith of violence and disconnect” in our world. 

Although less hyperbolic, Sierra Club president Allison Chin, at a July 2012 “Stop the Frack Attack” rally in Washington, D.C., described the thinking behind her organization’s new “Beyond Gas” campaign, warning, “The out-of-control rush to drill has put oil and gas industry profits ahead of our health, our families, our property, our communities, and our futures. If drillers can’t extract natural gas without destroying landscapes and endangering the health of families, then we should not drill for natural gas.” 

The movie Gasland put Hollywood’s propaganda skills to work in the anti-gas/anti-fracking crusade. And last December, the conscience of the baby-boom generation Yoko Ono and her son Sean Lennon placed a full-page ad in the New York Times, calling on New York governor Andrew Cuomo to “Imagine There’s No Fracking .  .  . and give clean energy a chance.”

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