The fight over American fossil fuel dependency is upon us. Earlier this week, Republican Senator Steve Daines of Montana put a hold on the full-chamber confirmation vote for President Biden’s pick for the Department of the Interior, Deb Haaland. “She opposes pipelines & fossil fuels,” was the reason given at the top of his statement.
The financiers and corporations behind the fossil fuel industry realize their window for a cash-grab is closing (if very slowly). On Tuesday, Wyoming Public Media reported that lawmakers such as Representative Liz Cheney have grounded their opposition to the Biden climate platform by repeatedly citing a study funded by a consortium of gas and oil companies. Those same companies have given Senator John Barrasso, one of Haaland’s harshest critics in her confirmation hearing, nearly a half-million dollars over the past five years. And corporate interests are already managing to rile the base: Perhaps your conservative relatives, also, without any prior history of geeking out on energy production, suddenly, in the wake of Biden’s inauguration, started sharing memes with captions reading, “I SUPPORT GAS AND OIL, LIKE IF U AGREE!!”
Within this struggle, though, there exists a more localized, incremental option for cities and states looking to build for the future, one that sidesteps national gridlock: Increasingly, local authorities are instituting policies to decrease dependency on natural gas.
While petroleum still controls the fossil fuel sector at 37 percent, natural gas currently fuels roughly 32 percent of America’s annual energy consumption. (Coal and renewable energy rank third at 11 percent apiece, with nuclear shoring up the remaining 8 percent.) We have now known for years that, despite the arguments of less-than-disinterested Obama administration officials who helped create the fracking boom, natural gas does not in fact help to lower carbon emissions. It also releases huge quantities of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas.
As Edna Bonhomme wrote for The New Republic in December, this isn’t a uniquely American problem: Countries across the world have spent the past decade favoring the construction of new natural gas pipelines over building out their solar and wind capabilities. But at long last, there do appear to be signs that the local and regional government agencies tasked with resource management and energy policies are ready to change course.
In late February, the Delaware River Basin Commission—an interstate commission between Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania—voted to permanently ban natural gas drilling in the watershed. The commission, which had passed a moratorium in 2010, made the ban permanent citing evidence that fracking would only put the crucial water resources in the basin at risk of contamination or further environmental damage. “Prohibiting high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the basin is vital to preserving our region’s recreational and natural resources and ecology,” said Shawn LaTourette, the acting commissioner for New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection. The move followed fracking bans enacted by the state legislatures of New York and Maryland—all supposedly positive steps that should move the region away from dependency on natural gas.
But, as the editorial board of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in the wake of the Delaware River Basin Commission’s decision, “fracking is only the first step in the lifespan of natural gas.” Even with fracking bans in place, New York, as well as the majority of states in the U.S., has only upped its demand for natural gas as the country has transitioned away from coal-based energy sources. Commenting on the rise of natural gas, a group of climate and energy experts wrote in the Scientific American last January that “increased natural gas and oil use are driving the increase in carbon dioxide emissions and are outpacing slight declines from global coal use.”
Cities, in theory, can counteract that trend by reducing opportunities for natural gas consumption. Two years ago, the city of Berkeley, California, became the first in the nation to ban gas hookups in newly constructed buildings. Since then, 40-some municipalities have followed suit, outlawing the use of gas in new buildings, moving to an all-electric model.
As with the national debate over fossil fuels, this method has faced stiff industry-backed opposition. According to Inside Climate News, Oklahoma, Arizona, Louisiana, and Tennessee have all passed state laws in the past two years to prohibit local governments from taking such initiatives. There’s also the issue of existing jurisdictional hurdles to clear: When Brookline, Massachusetts, attempted to ban natural gas in new buildings, the town bylaw was struck down by the state attorney general, who found that it was in conflict with state law.
That’s not to mention the opposition from consumers who have been convinced by decades of clever marketing that gas stoves are the ultimate foodie status symbol. Mother Jones reported in February on the evolution of the natural gas pitch by extractors and shippers, from its early days, when newspapers called gas “nature’s perfect fuel” to more modern attempts: In a case out of California, a staffer at a gas interest group went undercover on the neighborhood app NextDoor to try to convince a community to oppose a local city gas ban in new homes. It’s a last-minute attempt at shoring up customers for the next few decades. “Every new home that connects to the gas grid today,” reporter Rebecca Leber wrote, “will still be using fossil fuels in 15 years, no matter how much we clean up the electricity sector.”
Meanwhile, pipeline companies and their stakeholders continue to do all they can to remain relevant and necessary in the energy grid of the future. Earlier this week, The Seattle Times published a fascinating feature on the Klickitat landfill project in Washington. The landfill, owned by the Klickitat Public Utility District, converts its collected waste into natural gas, sans the fracking. The outfit has been contracted by Puget Sound Energy, which oversees more than 26,000 miles of pipelines in the Pacific Northwest and is now pushing the landfill version of natural gas as a way to convert the nation’s trash problem into a solution. It’s hardly good news in the attempt to move to a more sustainable energy future, though.
As long as Puget Sound Energy and other pipeline and energy companies continue to have a financial stake in seeing their pipelines remain operational, they will continue to offer half-measures as some kind of proof of their interest in greening the economy. But as The Seattle Times noted, the gas officials promoting the landfill idea as a new source of energy are the same ones who coordinated a lobbying campaign this past winter to block a bill in the state legislature that would have electrified new and old buildings in Washington. In other words, they only want to embrace the solutions of the future if they are dependent on the problems of the past.
Observing the natural gas dilemma from 30,000 feet, it’s difficult not to walk away equal parts frustrated and inspired. On the one hand, the fact that we are able to have a national debate on fossil fuels at all is the product of the organizing done by environmentalists and Indigenous communities set on creating a more sustainable way of living. Following in their footsteps, cities and states are filling the voids left by the federal government of past administrations, instituting policies that should rightfully be celebrated as bounds and leaps toward a livable Earth. But then, on the other, we’re left with what seems to be the defining facet of the entire war over fossil fuels: corporations doing anything and everything within their power to squeeze the last few drops of capital from their existing operations, all while claiming they’re helping to build a bridge to the future.
This isn’t a bridge, though. Watching cities and watersheds fending off new gas development bit by bit while corporations block a national fracking ban is like watching Wallace in Wallace & Gromit quickly slap down new toy train tracks underneath himself in a mad bid to stave off disaster. Sooner or later, we’re going to run out of tracks.