Natural Gas Is the Future. Let's Get Ready for It

By Andrew Browning

 

The public has been confronted with a barrage of information about shale gas: its impacts on drinking water, its benefits – and threats – to local communities, and its effects on the environment. Much of this conversation is not driven by science and sound, public discourse of the issues, but by fear and hyperbole on both sides. Now that the campaigns have concluded, President Obama must help lead a real, honest discussion about shale gas development and hydraulic fracturing.

Throughout the presidential campaigns, both Governor Romney and President Obama enthusiastically endorsed increased American natural gas production, making it seem as if there was nationwide consensus on this issue. In reality, the debate over natural gas is increasingly polarized, punctuated by protests and TV commercials.

 In September, the environmental group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) elaborated its position in support of safe natural gas production. Few other organizations publicly supported EDF’s moderate position. Sadly, EDF’s announcement only elicited criticism from dissenters who urged the organization to either embrace a moratorium on drilling or admit it was in cahoots with industry. Dissenters opined that it was inappropriate and even immoral for an environmental group to fight for scientifically based regulation of gas production; the only option was to oppose production outright.

EDF’s balanced outlook is underscored by the position that scientific understanding should drive public policy debates. EDF has taken this position on natural gas development based not on political positioning, but on a pragmatic approach that focuses on three key facts:

· Hydraulic Fracturing is widely used in the oil and gas industry and “is not going away anytime soon”

· Substituting natural gas for coal can provide a net environmental value, including a lower greenhouse gas footprint

· Hazards and risks from hydraulic fracturing can be eliminated by effective oversight and enforcement

While my organization is not an environmental group – Consumer Energy Alliance focuses on energy and consumer issues – we, just like all Americans, are environmentalists who have a right to safe air and water for our families. As a consumer-driven organization, we understand that unsafe energy production can cost consumers and communities dearly, and thus we support sound oversight of safe natural gas production similar to EDF. Public concerns on trucking safety, water use, water impact, and emissions are real and must be addressed by industry.

Moreover, if you do believe that global climate change is the most serious environmental issue facing society today, increased natural gas production and use (along with other policies such as increased vehicle efficiency standards) is the low-hanging fruit in today’s economic and political environment to help reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In fact, increased use of natural gas for electricity generation has led to a 20-year low in U.S. carbon emissions – without a federal or international carbon tax or cap and trade scheme. The United States leads the world in carbon dioxide reductions since 2006, and we’re on track to surpass our objectives agreed to in the Copenhagen Accords of 2009.

Positive economic news is projected to continue with the current trends in natural gas production and use. As President Obama stated during his DNC acceptance speech in Charlotte, natural gas development holds the potential to create 600,000 new American jobs. Manufacturers that rely on natural gas to create products such as chemicals, fertilizers, plastics, and steel are expanding left and right. Recently, Dow Chemical noted that it had assembled a list of 91 announced manufacturing projects in the United States, representing $70 billion in potential investment and up to 3 million jobs that various companies have proposed or begun because of the depth and breadth of newly realized, low-cost, lower-carbon, natural gas resources.

As someone who has worked in energy, policy and politics for almost 20 years, I understand that compromise and consensus building, when they are actually practiced, can create positive change and progress in our societal debates, and an honest, workable discussion on natural gas development is sorely in need. In that context, I would like to offer the following ideas:

First, do not dismiss environmental groups who believe a safe path forward is best determined by working with industry and government, not against them. With a seat at the table, EDF holds more influence in the discussion than an organization that only views energy development in black and white would. Moreover, EDF is better positioned to criticize industry and government if they believe the latter have failed to keep their promises to protect public health and the environment.

Second, minimize the politicization of scientific studies by encouraging regulatory agencies not to shoot first and ask questions later. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that aquifers near Pavillion, Wyoming and Dimock, Pennysylvania had both been contaminated due to energy production have since been reversed. Though the EPA has confirmed the drinking water in these areas is safe, this has not prevented groups from politicizing EPA’s motives and proliferating myths about hydraulic fracturing. On the flip side, this has greatly eroded EPA’s credibility and provided ammunition to the other side of the debate that the Obama administration has an anti-fossil fuel agenda that is only concerned with finding smoking guns.

Third, press elected officials have a comprehensive, fact-based discussion on shale gas development. Ask the real questions: How can government mitigate the impact of production on our environment in a way that is practical for industry yet satisfies the concerns of environmental groups and citizens in those communities? How should communities manage the real impacts – both good and bad – that come with increased production?

Finally, continue the conversation in your community and consider all viewpoints. The debate on U.S. energy production need not be so polarized. The United States can produce energy in a safe, responsible manner, but we the discussion must be led by smart policy, not clever politics.

 

Andrew Browning is Executive Vice President of Consumer Energy Alliance and a former Department of Energy official during the Clinton Administration.

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