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How The Gas Industry Could Tilt The Carbon Debate

Peter Behr and Christa Marshall of ClimateWire have an important story today about how the natural-gas industry may start flexing its muscle when the Senate gets around to debating the climate bill this fall. That could end up being a huge deal.

In theory, a strong cap on carbon should be a boon to natural gas. As renewables like wind and solar become widespread, utilities may well rely on gas generators for backup power. Plus, one of the simplest ways to cut emissions in the power sector is to use natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity—in many places, the infrastructure already exists, and recent discoveries of massive U.S. shale deposits means there'll be plenty of gas to go around. (Natural gas produces just half the carbon emissions of black coal, so it's not a bad stopgap.) A recent Electric Power Research Institute report predicted that, under a cap-and-trade system, natural gas would dethrone coal and produce half the country's electricity by 2020.

Now, during the House debate, the gas industry stayed on the sidelines, but now that seems to be changing. A bunch of swing-vote senators in the climate debate, from Arlen Specter to Blanche Lincoln, hail from regions with big untapped shale-gas deposits. So the gas industry could really make or break this bill. And, despite the fact that shale drilling—hydrofracturing—is a grubby process and a potential hackle-raiser among environmentalists, certain aspects of the natural-gas industry's wish list sound awfully green:

Many natural-gas advocates believe that a carbon cap will benefit natural gas by default, but the industry also is pushing for things such as fewer carbon offsets in a climate bill. Offsets allow emitters—such as big coal-dependent utilities—to meet carbon caps by paying for projects outside their own factories, like forestation projects overseas. That offsetting allows them to avoid switching to gas as an alternative fuel.

Rod Lowman, president and CEO of the newly formed America's Natural Gas Alliance, said in a recent interview that he was "concerned" about the number of offsets allowed in the Waxman-Markey proposal.

Hey what a coincidence, most environmentalists are leery about all the offsets in Waxman-Markey, too. Now, to be sure, not all priorities line up so well. The gas industry is also peddling the famous T. Boone Pickens plan to have us fill up our cars with natural gas—an idea that doesn't make a ton of sense from a climate-centric perspective. But there's still a fair bit of overlap.

(Flickr photo credit: Brian Grablin)