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.

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