In its latest issue of Electric Power Monthly, the Energy Information Administration reported that for the first time ever the United States produced more electricity by burning natural gas than by burning coal. People who are worried about man-made global warming should cheer since burning natural gas produces about half the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide that coal does. This achievement was made possible by the fracking revolution that unlocked vast quantities of previously unobtainable gas from shale formations. And yet, many environmentalists furiously oppose the development of this much cleaner fuel.
Back in 2011, I warned in my article, "Environmentalists Were For Fracking Before They Were Against It," that environmentalists were turning away from what they had once hailed as the "bridge fuel" to the no-carbon energy future:
Given its greenhouse gas benefits, environmental activists initially welcomed shale gas. For example, in August 2009 prominent liberals Timothy Wirth and John Podesta, writing on behalf of the Energy Future Coalition, hailed shale gas as "a bridge fuel to a 21st-century energy economy that relies on efficiency, renewable sources, and low-carbon fossil fuels such as natural gas." The same year, environmentalist Robert Kennedy, Jr., head of the Waterkeeper Alliance, declared in the Financial Times, "In the short term, natural gas is an obvious bridge fuel to the 'new' energy economy."
The natural gas flip flop occurred because gas became cheap and did not just displace coal, but also made solar and wind energy relatively more expensive as ways to generate electricity.
In their excellent USA Today op/ed, Breakthrough Institute founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus call out their fellow environmentalists for their ideological opposition to natural gas:
It is hard to remember now, but it wasn't so long ago that natural gas was seen as one of the most important solutions to global warming and a cleaner environment. That's one reason a new report released this month shows that natural gas has eclipsed coal as the largest U.S. source of electricity for the first time.
Environmental groups used to call natural gas a "bridge fuel" away from coal to renewables. The Sierra Club was so enthusiastic that between 2007 and 2010, according to Time magazine, it accepted $25 million in funding from oil and gas interests to pay a small army of lawyers and lobbyists as part of its "Beyond Coal" campaign….
It is more than a little ironic that at the moment that gas became cheap and abundant enough to displace coal at large scale, environmental groups began to oppose it.
Yes, it is.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus acknowledge the local NIMBY problems that producing natural gas can cause, but correctly conclude:
Ultimately, how America navigates the fracking wars will have a lot to say about how clean our air will be and how much carbon we will emit in the coming decades. Energy transitions come slowly, and it is highly improbable that gas production avoided through moratoriums such as New York's will be replaced in significant part with renewable energy.
Too often, blocking energy development locally simply outsources it somewhere else, often with much greater social and environmental consequences. Developing a truly zero carbon energy system will take many decades. In the meantime, despite its local impacts, gas can bring us great environmental benefits.
The whole op/ed is well worth reading.