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Skepticism On The Emerging Natural-Gas Lovefest

To recap, natural-gas deposits appear to be a lot more plentiful in the United States than previously thought. And natural gas produces far fewer carbon-dioxide emissions than coal, which presently provides half the country's electricity. So it would be rational for the gas industry to push for a strong carbon cap that prods electric utilities into switching fuels. Strangely, though, natural-gas producers stayed quiet during the climate debate in the House, which crafted a bill that was (relatively) friendly toward coal. But, as noted last week, that will change when the Senate takes up the bill. The Center for Public Integrity's Marianne Lavelle has more detail on the gas lobby's ramped-up operations:

Enter a new interest group: America's Natural Gas Alliance, representing more than two dozen producers of natural gas that are independent—that is, not affiliated with a larger oil company. The alliance, which represents about 40 percent of U.S. natural gas production today, argues that they should be fueling a much bigger share of the nation's electricity production since natural gas is the least carbon-intensive fossil fuel.

The coal industry has argued that such fuel-switching could be costly, but ANGA is plying the Senate, the White House, and Obama administration energy and environmental officials with maps showing how new drilling techniques mean the nation can rely more heavily on natural gas without fear of the price spikes that have previously plagued the fuel....

Rod Lowman, who spent 17 years in Washington defending the plastic industry against environmentalist critics as president of the American Plastics Council, is now pushing the benefits of natural gas as president of ANGA. "The principal question we're getting, quite frankly, is 'Where have you been?'" says Lowman. "The utilities and the coal industry have been at this for a very long time." Because "most of the deals had been cut" in the House by the time ANGA started lobbying on May 1, he says the group is focusing its sights on the battle on the other side of the Capitol.

Notice, too, that Democrats have lately been swooning over T. Boone Pickens, the nation's most famous natural-gas booster. Pickens recently attended the Senate Democrats' weekly policy lunch, and yesterday he shared the stage with Harry Reid at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, where Energy Secretary Steven Chu was heard suggesting that natural-gas vehicles could make sense as an intermediate step toward electric vehicles. (And on the seamier side, the Wall Street Journal reported last year that Nancy Pelosi had invested in Pickens's natural-gas plan.)

It's quite the lovefest. But is there any cause for concern? Yes, possibly. The Center for American Progress recently issued a report arguing that natural gas from shale deposits could serve as a "bridge fuel" to reduce emissions in the short term while we develop lower-carbon energy options. Fair enough, but let's also not forget that natural-gas drilling also has some nasty side effects:

[The drilling technique] involves pumping water and other materials under high pressure deep into rock formations that hold gas. The process fractures the rock and holds open the fissures to allow the gas to flow to the surface more efficiently. This process can employ toxic chemicals such as benzene and has the potential to pollute deep aquifers, groundwater, and surface waters.

Adjacent communities are concerned about the public health impacts from the use and release of toxic substances, both naturally occurring and those used in the natural gas production process such as benzene, formaldehyde, or radioactive materials. The process also yields significant amounts of air pollution. The gas production from the Barnett Shale in the five counties near Dallas-Fort Worth creates more emissions of smog-forming compounds than motor vehicles.

Incidentally, gas drilling in Fort Worth has spawned serious backlash among residents (though the local natural-gas producer is fighting back by enlisting Tommy Lee Jones as a spokesperson). Now, the CAP report recommends stricter EPA oversight of natural-gas production, as well as new disclosure laws that would let people know what chemicals were being employed near their homes. That sounds sensible, but as the natural-gas industry starts flexing its lobbying muscles in Congress, it's presumably going to push against tighter regulations, too. Environmentalists may appreciate the gas industry's support for a stronger climate bill, but that friendship's undoubtedly going to have limits.