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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Get it right on gas

This link is a couple of days old now - but that's OK, because this came out the same day that Curiosity landed on Mars.  So it was a bit overshadowed, you might say.

Friedman wrote an op-ed in the NY Times about the importance of the natural gas boom, and the need to get it right.  In it he argues points that I've put forward before, that is that a natural gas boom, as is currently happening in the U.S., is good for the economy and the environment - but only if done right.

Good for the economy because this is "home grown" energy, mined from U.S. lands, and it will create jobs in the gas industry as well as other industries that could make the switch from coal or oil, such as the automotive industry.  Switching away from oil is also beneficial for our national security, since many of the nations that benefit from huge oil prices are also ones that don't care for the U.S. very much.

Good for the environment is a bit of a harder sell, because natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and therefore CO2 is released as a product of combustion.  CO2 being the leading cause of climate change, the continued release of CO2 is still problematic.  However, natural gas releases much less CO2 than coal, and so therefore represents a reduction in the amount of CO2 we emit.  Combining that reduction with other reductions, such as increased energy efficiency and more reliance on non-fossil fuel energy sources, really gets us headed in the right direction of emitting less CO2.  One problem is that methane itself, the principal constituent of natural gas, is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2.  Leaky gas pipes, therefore, could potentially offset the gain by reduce CO2.  Therefore we need to continue to build a culture of good stewardship of our natural resources, and reduce waste by fixing things like leaky pipes.  It isn't just regulations and laws and infrastructure that we need to change; we need to continue to change hearts & minds as well toward stewardship of our planet.  Again, however, the point that Friedman makes is that the gas boom is a good thing if we do it right.  If we don't, then problems like leaky gas pipes could possibly offset the gains.
Another perspective on the environment is the amount of other toxic materials often released with the burning of coal.  Toxic metals such as mercury are released when coal is burned, but they are not found in natural gas.  Switching from coal to natural gas therefore reduces the amount of these pollutants.  It also reduces the mining of coal, which is the cause of mountain top removal in my beloved Appalachia.
Another con argument for the natural gas boom is the process of fracking - again, the point being made by Friedman that this gas boom is only beneficial if we do it right.  We need proper procedures, good engineering practices, sound regulations, and proper enforcement.  These are all problems of political will and of engineering, and they are not at all problems that we should not be able to overcome.  After all, we just dropped a mini-cooper sized mobile chemistry laboratory on Mars - this problem should be relatively easy in comparison!
Lastly, I want to again stress that natural gas should be seen as a transition fuel from the dirtier fossil fuels toward cleaner sources of energy, eventually eliminating our use of them in favor of fully renewable sources.  But that process is going to take a long time.  In the mean time, we can make some positive gains.