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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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Such opponents of fracking may not realize it, but there is a rapidly developing national consensus—at least outside their circles—that fracking and the abundant supplies of low-cost natural gas it can produce are a great economic and environmental windfall for the United States. As natural gas replaces coal over the next several decades in the generation of electricity, gas power plants will emit far fewer conventional pollutants than coal-fired plants  and only about half the amount of carbon dioxide. 

Many environmental activists refuse to accept this. As New York Times environmental reporter Justin Gillis wrote in March in the newspaper’s “Science Times” section, “many environmentalists believe that wind and solar power can be scaled to meet the rising demand [for electricity], especially if coupled with aggressive efforts to cut waste.” Most energy and environmental experts, however, believe otherwise. As Gillis noted, the experts favor a more realistic policy: “supplanting coal-burning power plants with natural gas plants” as a short- and medium-term bridge to carbon-free sources of energy that could be practicable by the second half of the current century. 

At this stage, gas’s tremendous promise is undeniable. A February report from the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, “Realizing the Potential of U.S. Unconventional Natural Gas,” concluded that worldwide shale gas supplies are “enormous and readily available”; that “there are no ‘showstoppers’ (i.e., unmanageable risks that require widespread reconsideration of current recommended practices)”; that environmental and other “development risks are manageable today”; and that the federal government should “set an energy narrative for the country that articulates a clear role for natural gas.” 

Combined with rapidly increasing production of oil from shale, using the same fracking techniques, what this means is that the United States and other normally pragmatic nations have a real prospect of significantly reducing their energy dependence on Russia, Venezuela, the Persian Gulf, and other politically unstable areas. 

Still, the doubters persist. A 2011 study by Cornell University’s Robert Howarth, for example, raised the fear that gas production and distribution could result in the large-scale release of more greenhouse-intensive methane gas, negating the carbon dioxide advantages of gas over coal. Most experts are much less concerned. Because methane has a short half-life in the atmosphere (10 or so years, unlike long-lived carbon dioxide), most methane leaked from gas operations during a bridge period in the first half of the twenty-first century will have disappeared long before 2100. Hence, as Michael Levi, director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained in a January 2013 article in the journal Climatic Change, “contrary to recent claims, methane leakage from natural gas operations is unlikely to strongly undermine the climate benefits of substituting gas for coal in the context of bridge fuel scenarios.” This has not prevented many environmental activists from continuing to bring up the methane red herring.

One of the stranger aspects of the fracking story is that not long ago—before opposition to fracking became a requirement of environmental faith—leading environmentalists, such as Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club from 1992 to 2010, were touting the environmental advantages of natural gas. 

Indeed, Pope agreed in 2007 to a marriage of convenience with the Chesapeake Energy Corporation, a leading U.S. producer of natural gas. From then until 2010, the Sierra Club received more than $26 million from Chesapeake Energy to promote the Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign—and not coincidentally the use of natural gas as the leading replacement for coal. 

Besides the greenhouse benefits of gas, another of Pope’s selling points was that living downwind from a coal-burning power plant can be a bit like smoking cigarettes. Some experts estimate that the small particulate matter and other conventional air emissions from coal-fired power plants cause some 10,000 to 30,000 Americans to “die prematurely” each year. 

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