Natural gas, the miracle fuel!


Geez, it seems like it was just a few months ago that the natural gas boom was busting and the drill rigs were sent a-packin'. Natural gas prices cratered, thanks to the general economic malaise, and big shale gas plays in other parts of the country really dug into the West's drilling boom. Meanwhile, all the folks losing their jobs on the rigs blamed stricter regulations (and environmentalists and Democrats) for their woes.  Now, it looks like natural gas is poised for a comeback. And who's touting it the most? Environmentalists and Democrats!

The arguments are honest and even reasonable, to a degree: Natural gas emits about half the carbon dioxide as coal, and right now natural gas is not too pricey. Furthermore, switching from coal plants to natural gas plants would be cheaper and quicker than building the equivalent solar, wind or even nuclear generation. In many cases, the infrastructure and transmission already exists to, first, ramp up existing natural gas plants, and then to switch coal to gas or cofire. Meanwhile, recent projections say that, thanks to deep shale gas finds, there's plenty of gas to be drilled.

Still, the about face of greens and Dems on this issue has been shocking ... sort of. A few months ago, some of these same folks were demonized by the natural gas industry because of their push for more regs. Now, well... when the drill rigs return to your neighborhood, these are some of the folks you can thank:

• Joe Romm at the Climate Progress blog, who extensively laid out the case for relying on natural gas for more of our electricity needs, arguing: 

There is simply no doubt that, other than energy efficiency and conservation, the lowest-cost option for achieving large-scale CO2 reductions by 2020 is simply replacing electricity produced by burning coal with power generated by burning more natural gas in the vast array of currently underutilized gas-fired plants.  Natural gas is the cheapest, low-carbon baseload power around.

• Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who wrote at Huffington Post picked up the same argument, basically using natural gas as a stick with which to bludgeon "King Coal."

• Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, who went from being the bad guy in the gasfields (for transforming his state from industry lapdog, to one that kind of regulates drilling), to saying this:

“Natural gas is a vital part of the new energy economy, a permanent part,” Ritter told hundreds at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s annual conference in Denver on July 9. “Not a bridge fuel, not a transition fuel, but a mission-critical fuel.”  

• Sen. Harry Reid, who, at the Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas this week, said: “I’ve been converted. I now belong to the Pickens church." (Oilman T. Boone Pickens is now well known for touting wind power, but with natural gas as the transition fuel).

• Also joining -- or leading -- the gasfest are Energy Secretary Steven Chu; Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.; former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta (who now heads up the Center for American Progress); the Energy Future Coalition (download their argument here as a pdf); and former Sen. Tim Wirth

Now this is one of those sticky issues that we're seeing a lot of lately, where fixing the global environment (i.e. climate change) might wreck the more local environment (wind turbines in sage grouse habitat). As Kennedy put it:

Natural gas comes with its own set of environmental caveats. It is a carbon-based fuel and is extraction from shale, the most significant new source, if not managed carefully, can cause serious water, land use, and wildlife impacts, especially in the hands of irresponsible producers and lax regulators. But those impacts are dwarfed by the disastrous holocaust of coal and can be mitigated by careful regulation.

Yes, but how carefully can we really manage natural gas drilling -- and what difference will it make -- when we're desperately trying to get enough of it to heat our homes, generate electricity and run our cars? One can't help but wonder if some of the natural gas boosters have ever walked through the Jonah Field in Wyoming, or the San Juan Basin of northern New Mexico, where drill rigs have popped up in the landscape like weeds, and now have come to resemble -- though I hate using the word in such instances -- "holocausts" themselves.

One also can't help but take a somewhat cynical view, and see some connection between ramped up lobbying efforts by the natural gas industry, and the green/Dem gasfest.

Back in March, a bunch of big players in the natural gas industry got together and formed a PR/lobbying group called America's Natural Gas Alliance. It took them a bit to get ramped up, which caused them to miss out on lobbying as the House of Representatives created and debated the Waxman-Markey climate bill. Coal got all kinds of concessions in that bill, natural gas none. But that could change: This summer, the ANGA started its PR/Lobbying blitz, throwing cash in every direction in hopes of influencing the Senate debate on the bill. Even with that slow start, the ANGA has already spent more than $300,000 on lobbying this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. ANGA represents about 40 percent of natural gas production today, reports the Center for Public Integrity, and:

"... ANGA is plying the Senate, the White House, and Obama administration and officials with maps showing how new drilling techniques mean the nation can rely more heavily on natural gas without the fear of the price spikes that have previously plagued the fuel."

It appears to be working. And it's fair to expect natural gas become a star of the upcoming senate debates on the climate bill.

In the meantime, you can see whether your neighborhood is in the shale gas crosshairs by checking out this map. It's interesting that some of the hotspots are adjacent to, but not the same as, the big coalbed methane and conventional natural gas fields. The canyon country of eastern Utah, for example, looks to hold a bonanza of shale gas. Gulp...




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