Natural Gas – A Bridge to the New Energy Economy

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we know we must reduce carbon dioxide emissions quickly and dramatically.  And to do that we need to shift to clean and efficient energy sources.  It’s something NRDC discusses in detail in its new analysis of the current and possible future role of natural gas in moving the U.S. to a new energy economy.  At the end of the transition to clean energy, no later than 2050 the scientists tell us, and with no less than an 80% CO2 emission reduction, natural gas cannot be a big source of our energy.  That's simple fact.   

However, natural gas can have a role in our transition to our new energy economy.  It can be an important adjunct to renewable energy sources such as wind or solar.  Natural gas generation emits much less CO2 than coal generation.  Some natural gas can even be extracted in ways that cause less environmental harm than oil or coal extraction, although I'll continue to fight any proposals to drill for gas in our most special areas (like the Arctic Refuge, the Rocky Mountain Front, Utah’s Bedrock, the Wyoming Range, and in the Catskills, one of my favorite places to hike). 

Many of us use natural gas in our homes for heat, hot water, and cooking, and for electricity generation. Efficient (this is the key word) use of natural gas — the cleanest-burning of all fossil fuels — can result in substantially lower emissions of global warming pollution than many alternatives. But we are at a crossroads. Natural gas can serve as a short-term aid, but it must be coupled with long-term renewable energy investments.

There are some who want to drill everywhere regardless of the consequences. You have probably heard them droning on all summer with their misleading message that drilling will lower prices. Recent history tells a different story: From 2001 to 2006, drilling on public lands and natural gas production increased substantially…and so did the price of fuel, from $12 to $15 per thousand cubic feet.

More importantly, invading pristine places to drill for natural gas that we can get elsewhere would be an irreparable and costly mistake.

Besides, at the end of 2006, we already had 42 million acres — that’s about the size of Wisconsin — leased for oil and gas, and less than a third of that leased area — only 12 million acres — was in production. 

A far better policy is an investment in natural gas efficiency. It will cost less and works faster than drilling — lowering bills for the average consumer right away. Our report found that an aggressive natural gas efficiency program could cumulatively save more than 234 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the next 50 years. That’s equivalent to more than a decade of fuel demand. What does this aggressive efficiency program look like?  Congress can stimulate investments in renewable energy sources by capping greenhouse gas emissions.  It can also build in tax breaks, refunds, and other incentives to those who conserve.  And it means as a nation we save more on every electric bill as we get smarter about getting away from power-thirsty appliances and equipment and get better at sealing up our homes and buildings for winter. 

These are easy but crucial Congressional actions to bring us short-term benefits and long-term energy solutions. Natural gas can be a bridge to a new energy economy, but drilling for gas without strategic plans and investments in a completely clean energy future?  Now that’s what I call a bridge to nowhere.