Obama’s love letter to natural gas

The political and practical potential of gas in the climate fight

  • President Barack Obama wipes sweat from his brow during a major speech at Georgetown University in June in which he unveiled his plan on climate change, which relies heavily on natural gas.

    Alex Wong/Getty Images

In the record-hot summer of 1988, Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth, D, organized a hearing around the first legislation written to address what was then called the "greenhouse effect," a phenomenon NASA scientist James Hansen memorably testified was "changing our climate now." The words had little effect: the National Energy Policy Act of 1988 died in committee. Wirth left the Senate in 1993, and concern about climate disappeared behind the Sagebrush Rebellion.

But that summer's testimony still resonates. Hansen's warnings hardly differ from those President Obama delivered in his historic climate speech 25 unusually hot years and two days later. The solutions haven't changed much, either. Like efficiency, conservation and renewables, nuclear power came up in Wirth's hearings, just as it does in Obama's climate plan. So did natural gas. "Natural gas is the fossil fuel having the lowest carbon dioxide emissions rate," Energy Undersecretary Donna Fitzpatrick told the senators, "yielding about half the carbon dioxide of coal combustion for the same heat or energy produced."

Problem was, there just wasn't enough of it. The Energy Department was investing in research to extract methane more efficiently from "tight sands, shales and coal seams." But almost half the world's obtainable reserves lay underneath the still-hostile Soviet Union. Natural gas, noted Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator Robert Haywood, was "strategically insecure."

Natural gas has since become so abundant in the U.S. that other countries want to buy it from us. And it now holds a hallowed place in this administration's climate strategy. "It's the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution," Obama said on June 25. Plus, it's creating jobs.

Experts disagree on how useful natural gas might be in the climate fight. There is unburned methane to worry about, a greenhouse gas with roughly 21 times the warming power of carbon dioxide that too often leaks from drilling operations. Evidence also persists that the slurry of water, chemicals and sand used in hydrofracturing for shale gas may have already poisoned groundwater in some places.

But even environmentalists doubt that Obama can forge a climate policy without natural gas. "There's no way that any politician at that level can pursue anything other than an all-of-the above strategy," says Gary Graham, director of the lands program at Western Resource Advocates in Boulder, Colo. "You'd be fighting battles that would take focus away from your goal, which is reducing carbon emissions." In other words, wooing the natural gas industry might be the only hope Obama has to make any progress at all against the fossil-fuel lobby's political blockade. And becoming part of the climate solution may also be the best chance the natural gas lobby has against its deteriorating public image.

In 2009, in Denver, Colo., Tim Wirth went before an audience of lobbyists and industry insiders from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and accused them of squandering a rare opportunity to influence Obama's energy policy. Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., had just passed a House climate bill that contained, said Wirth, "a staggering array of energy policies, tax incentives, regulatory requirements and national standards," crafted in collaboration with energy producers.

"Every industry was deeply engaged," Wirth said. "Except one. The natural gas industry -- the industry with the most to gain and the most to offer."

Within a few months, Wirth and John Podesta, who'd been a member of the Obama-Biden transition team, authored a widely circulated op-ed calling natural gas "A Bridge Fuel for the 21st Century." By early 2010, boosters such as American Natural Gas Alliance CEO Regina Hopper were publishing their own editorials promoting gas as "a game-changing opportunity to play a global leadership role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

Around the same time, Obama's "green jobs" strategy was sputtering. His adviser on the program, environmental justice advocate Van Jones, had resigned over a trumped-up controversy. Then, in 2011, a solar-cell manufacturer, Solyndra, went bankrupt despite a $535 million Energy Department loan guarantee. The president was losing the argument that the country could lower unemployment along with carbon emissions. So in his 2012 State of the Union address, he touted an industry that could do both.

"The development of natural gas," he said, "will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper." Obama energy and climate advisor Heather Zichal subsequently went looking for allies in the gas industry to back Obama's climate plans. After his re-election, Obama brought on as Energy Secretary MIT physicist Ernest Moniz, who had chaired an influential study concluding that natural gas "will play a crucial role in enabling very substantial reductions in carbon emissions."

Dan Grossman, the Western regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund, agrees with that statement. "We think there's enough of a potential benefit to support switching from coal to natural gas in power production," he says. But he's also concerned that in rushing to embrace natural gas, the administration may gloss over serious public health concerns. The EPA recently backed away from a study of fracking's impact on water supplies in Pavillion, Wyo., leaving the state and the developer, EnCana, to finalize its conclusions. Several studies also confirm that gas operations contribute heavily to local air pollution. "And it's happening where people live," Grossman says. "It's happening where they have homes and go to school.

"There is a crisis of confidence in the industry," Grossman continues, "and a crisis of confidence in the government to regulate that industry." There is also hope: Grossman points to Colorado's recent rulemaking effort and existing law in Wyoming to address ozone pollution as potential blueprints for federal regulation.

And as Wirth told another gas producers' meeting in 2010, "responsible regulation" is ultimately industry's friend. Without it, he argued, "you might as well flare your advertising dollars" -- the millions spent on branding the industry clean. "The (regulatory) status quo is not good enough," he said. "Not after stories about water faucets that you can light with a match."

That speech played less well than the first, Wirth admits now. "They did not invite me back." But he stands by it: "Some things are hard, like getting the coal industry to support the transition to a climate-friendly world. But getting the natural gas industry to follow basic standards?" That, he insists, "should not be hard."

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