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.
But a few years later, the environmental movement reversed its position. Recently, the National Resources Defense Council successfully lobbied for a ban on fracking — the practice of cracking open underground oil and gas formations with water, sand and chemicals — for natural gas in New York state. The Sierra Club abruptly ended its alliance with the industry and announced a “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign. A recent Gallup poll finds 40% of Americans support fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, and 40% oppose it, with environmentalists and Democrats most likely to oppose it.
What changed? Gas became cheap and abundant thanks to fracking. And where conventional natural gas production was historically centered in the oil patch, shale gas is often present in places such as upstate New York, where a lot more environmentalists live. As a result, while gas remains the state’s No. 1 source of electricity, its production there has been effectively banned.
Goaded on by grassroots opposition to fracking and fearing that cheap gas would slow down the transition to renewable energy, environmental leaders now claim that fracking is contaminating wells and depleting aquifers, and that leaking natural gas makes fracking worse for global warming than coal.
In reality, gas remains a vastly superior source of energy than coal by virtually every environmental metric — just as it was a decade ago. That’s because coal is a dirty sponge rock. Burning it emits mercury, a toxic heavy metal, and sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain. You have to literally blow the tops off of mountains to get the stuff. Whole river watersheds in West Virginia are buried under toxic debris. This month, thanks, in part, to natural gas, new federal statistics show mountain top mining is down 62% since 2008.
Natural gas is so clean, many of us burn it in our kitchens without need for chimneys or vents. It emits practically no mercury and 17 to 40 times less sulfur dioxide, according to our study with Breakthrough Institute. As for water, simply switching electricity production from coal to natural gas saves 25 to 50 times more water.
Critics claim these benefits are not being realized because gas has displaced renewable energy and nuclear power instead of coal. In reality, our analysis shows that more than 90% of the growth in gas-fired generation since the onset of the shale gas revolution in 2005 has replaced coal-fired generation.
Far from undercutting renewables, wind and solar energy depend on the gas-fired generation to keep the lights on when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, which is about two-thirds or more of the time for the average wind or solar plant. Without natural gas, utilities would have to ramp coal plants up and down rapidly to back up variable renewable energy sources, which makes coal plants even dirtier because it requires operating them less efficiently.
A study at University of Texas-Austin, meanwhile, found that the amount of natural gas that leaks during its production has decreased. Even if methane leak rates were substantially higher, there would be little climate impact because it is a short-lived greenhouse gas and mostly irrelevant to the rate at which long-term temperatures will rise.
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