Drilling the Democrats

Will the new administration slow the gas boom, or speed it up?


On a hot day in Denver, Colo., last August, during the Democratic National Convention, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi touted the Democrats' plan for dealing with the energy crisis. Her party, she said, would forge a comprehensive energy plan that would wean the United States from our dependence on foreign oil, bring down gas prices and save the climate. 

"We can't drill our way out of this problem," she said. It became the refrain of the rest of the presidential campaign. 

During Pelosi's speech, a bunch of young men held up signs and chanted: "Drill here, drill now!" Though they succeeded in rendering her inaudible, Pelosi thanked the protesters for making clear the distinction between the Democrats' plan and the Republicans' plan.

Now, with Democrats dominating both the White House and Congress, we're about to find out how clear the distinction really is.

George W. Bush flaunted his drill-happy ways. An oilman himself, he chose the former CEO of an oilfield services company as his right-hand man. He put an anti-regulation ideologue, Gale Norton, into the top post at Interior (she now works for an oil company), and she placed former fossil-fuel industry executives and lobbyists in many of the top posts of her department, which oversees millions of acres of federal lands and is charged with protecting wildlife and collecting billions of dollars in royalties on oil and gas.

And so, few people were surprised when drill rigs invaded the West during the post 9/11 quest for energy independence. Obama, along with Ken Salazar, his pick for Interior secretary, is far less beholden to industry than his predecessor -- gas and oil interests donated three times more money to Republicans than Democrats during the campaign. Shouldn't we expect the natural gas boom to abate under a flood of new regulations? Not necessarily. In fact, it appears that when it comes to natural gas, the Democrats seem almost as enthusiastic about drilling here and now as their Republican counterparts.

The need to increase the supply of natural gas has lingered just beneath the surface of the Democrats' "drilling is not the answer" rhetoric all along. Last summer, on Meet the Press, Pelosi said, "You can have a transition (from coal and petroleum to solar and wind) with natural gas that is cheap, abundant and clean." As a congressman, Rahm Emanuel, now Obama's chief of staff, pushed legislation to offer tax credits to natural gas producers and users. As a candidate, Obama promised to continue to drill in the nation's gas fields, albeit "responsibly."

Meanwhile, the desire for energy independence has grown even stronger, thanks to high gas prices this summer and continued unrest in the Middle East Combine that with the administration's promise to tackle global climate change, and you've got a recipe whose main ingredient is more natural gas.

Burning natural gas to generate electricity emits about half the greenhouse gases that burning coal does, making it a natural alternative for power generation until the renewable energy infrastructure catches up. Thousands of tons of greenhouse gases, not to mention a lot of other nasty stuff, could be kept out of the air by maxing out the capacity of our existing natural gas power plants. Currently, 49 percent of the nation's electricity comes from coal, compared to only 20 percent from natural gas. The air would be cleaner if existing coal plants were converted to natural gas. We could also replace any of the 150 or so coal plants now on the drawing board with natural gas plants.

None of this would be cheap, but it's a feasible way to reduce greenhouse gases quickly. It will take years of work and a much-expanded electrical grid to bring enough wind and solar online to make a significant difference. As for nuclear plants, they take forever to build and cost billions of dollars, while "clean coal" is an elusive concept dreamed up by the coal industry.

So, when the Natural Gas Council declared, "Natural gas could turn out to be one of the biggest winners of (the 2008) elections," it might turn out to be right. Folks in gas country, who left the ballot box drunk with the hope that the Democrats would offer a reprieve from the drilling, may find they're the losers. One hope is that the new administration will approach drilling for natural gas in a saner, slower and more responsible way than the last.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.og). He is the editor of the magazine in Paonia, Colorado.

Anonymous says:
Jan 20, 2009 03:41 PM
Uhh, since U.S. natural gas production peaked earlier this decade, we need to continue to look at conservation, alternative energy sources, etc.
Anonymous says:
Jan 26, 2009 06:17 PM
Yes, natural gas will be a target of the new administration. Unfortunately, we are using the stuff up as fast as we can find it. The worst part: what do you do when it is all gone?

Typically, Mr. Thompson dismisses nuclear. However, there is a kind of nuclear that is promising. Los Alamos is working on some concepts. But available right now are "maritime" reactors of the type powering the world's nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines. I have heard that when nuclear ships are in harbor they can hook into the local grid and sell their power.

Imagine for a moment that these much smaller reactors are produced and distributed to our nation's cities. Being close to the users, no massive new transmission lines would be required.

This is proven technology. Experienced operators are available. The waste problems have been mitigated.

Why not check it out?
Anonymous says:
Jan 30, 2009 01:03 PM

With due respect, your article is a bit simplistic and ignores a couple of key issues.

First, you indicate that "natural" gas burns cleaner than coal. That's true, but you fail to account for the fact that the extraction of natural gas produces significant greenhouse gas emissions (which can be understood as "waste"). In New Mexico, for example, the oil and "natural" gas industry are the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, second only to the transportation sector. Moreover, when you look at our national greenhouse gas footprint, it becomes clear that burning natural gas is itself a huge source of emissions -- not just in the West. Especially because methane is 25x as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. While there are various existing, cost-effective technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and put more natural gas in the pipeline for homes, schools, and businesses, these technologies are not being deployed or required at the necessary scale. This is an angle/issue that has yet to be effectively covered by the media.

Second, you suggest that switching from coal-fired to natural gas-fired utility-scale electricity generation is the solution. It may be *part* of the solution, but you need to address, as I've noted, the full life cycle (upstream to downstream) of natural gas greenhouse gas emissions, and also compare the costs/benefits of ramping up utility-scale natural gas electricity generation to utility-scale renewable energy (solar, wind), distributed generation, improvements in our grid to get renewable energy to consumers, and, most importantly, the incredibly huge role that EFFICIENCY should play (look, for example, at the efficiency improvements made by the State of California).

Third, in understanding climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, it's critical to focus on not just greenhouse gas reductions, but reductions that actually accomplish science-based goals. I'd encourage you to read the following article discussion the "bathtub effect," in particular Dr. Sterman's (MIT professor) thoughts (http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/[…]/). It's illuminative of the scale of actions we need to take, and suggestive of the possibility that merely switching from one fossil fuel to another would be the equivalent of putting a different kind of bullet in the gun pointed at our heads as a result of climate change.

Fourth, any discussion of energy development and climate change needs to acknowledge the costs of inaction, and the role that technological shifts will play in sparking our moribund economy. I know your article wasn't intended as an exhaustive discussion, but this is an element that should be a *focal point* of our discussions about energy and climate, and ultimately more important that discussions that fixate on the mere switch from one type of fossil fuel to another.

Fifth, in thinking about intensifying our reliance on natural gas, let's remember that most conservationists don't oppose natural gas development. Rather, it's about ensuring that natural gas development is conducted responsibly, is balanced with wildlife, water, etc. (which will be critical to ensure our community's resiliency in the face of observed and anticipated climate change impacts), stays out of our most treasured landscapes, and does not undermine our efforts to combat climate change.

Sixth, do you really think that increasing domestic natural gas production will actually lead to energy dependence? The problem, fundamentally, is our reliance on fossil fuels. That reliance leads to our dependence on foreign countries. Really, energy independence is politically attractive but little more than a political talking point. We're entering an age where acknowledgment of our connections, as a world, will be critical to share technology and ideas. And while maximizing domestic energy is a noble goal, our focus should be on home-grown energy from clean, plentiful, and renewable solar and wind as well as improved efficiency -- all of which best positions our country for a green jobs revolution.

My intent is not to be too critical -- I understand the core point of your article and the fact that it could not cover all the issues. But I do want to emphasize that solutions to our climate-energy nexus are not subject to simple binary analyses. In fact, such binary analyses (i.e., more coal or more natural gas) may do more harm than good, undermining our ability to have a robust, reality-based discussion of the climate-energy nexus which acknowledges the complexities to properly illuminate the solutions.

Western Environmental Law Center
Anonymous says:
Jan 30, 2009 01:41 PM

Thanks for your great comment. But I think you may have missed the point of my article somewhat. I am NOT advocating for the use of more natural gas; rather, I am predicting what might happen under a Democratic administration and congress as they try to achieve some sort of "energy independence" and tackle climate change at the same time.

I believe that natural gas can and will be part of the larger energy mix, but that ramping up development of natural gas is a bad idea. Though it may reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing coal burning, it has horrendous on-the-ground effects. And, if we burn more gas, we'll need to import more LNG. So much for energy independence.

And, I agree with you that our climate-energy nexus is not subject to binary analysis. The problem is, politicians as a collective unit are less likely to consider nuances or complexities of issues like this. So, they reduce it to an either-or situation. And these days, I'm afraid, that may mean ramping up our natural gas use.

Thanks again for inspiring dialogue.

Jonathan Thompson