Natural gas now a major player in any federal energy bill

Less than two hours after President Obama suggested in a post-midterm press conference that Republicans and Democrats could find common ground on proposals to develop the country’s natural gas resources, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune underscored environmentalists’ love-hate relationship with the fossil fuel.

Environmentalists are concerned that a common method of natural gas drilling can release dangerous chemicals into groundwater. (Bryan Smith/
“To be clear, natural gas is not clean, but it’s cleaner than some dirty energy,” he told reporters at a separate Nov. 3 press conference on the prospects for energy and climate legislation in the new Congress.

Natural gas is shaping up to be one of a small handful of energy issues that could get significant attention in the next Congress. As a result, environmentalists are being forced to grapple with the complexities surrounding the expanded use of natural gas. On the one hand, burning natural gas produces about 40 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than coal; on the other hand, natural gas drilling presents its own set of concerns that make environmentalists cringe.

“We want to make sure natural gas is not viewed as some kind of magic bullet,” said Franz Matzner, climate legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But we need to look at ways in which we can reduce our carbon footprint now and it’s appealing that it has a smaller footprint. It’s not a replacement for getting renewables online.”

Meanwhile, hoping to ride the momentum from Obama’s high-profile remarks last week, the natural gas industry is preparing to push next year for a number of provisions that favor natural gas. One natural gas industry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said natural gas will be a key issue in any bipartisan energy bill next year. “There is some potential to gather bipartisan support for an energy proposal that involves promotion of natural gas,” the official said. “There can be some kind of adjustment policy that allows for the benefits that natural gas provides: stable pricing, domestic production and plentiful resources.”

The natural gas industry plans to lobby for the inclusion of natural gas as an option for meeting a renewable energy standard, which would require that a certain percentage of the country’s electricity come from renewable sources like wind and solar.

In a Nov. 5 letter to President Obama (pdf) obtained by The Washington Independent, the heads of the country’s four major natural gas industry groups laid out their policy priorities. “Should Congress move forward on a renewable or clean electricity standard, natural gas generation should be included as a compliance option,” the letter said.

Environmentalists and clean energy advocates say they will oppose such an effort. “Natural gas is not a renewable energy source,” said Dan Weiss, senior fellow and the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress. “Therefore it does not belong in an RES.”

David Hamilton, director of global warming and energy programs at the Sierra Club, echoed Weiss’ sentiments. “We really would need to look at the details,” Hamilton said. “But we’ve traditionally been protective of what gets called clean.”

A third clean energy advocate with close ties to Congress dismissed the prospect that environmentalists would be willing to compromise on including natural gas in an RES. “We would rather have nothing than that,” the clean energy advocate said.

But Weiss suggested there is room for negotiation on the issue. He said a proposal to pass a separate low-carbon electricity standard requiring that a certain percentage of the country’s electricity come from natural gas, coal with carbon capture technology and nuclear power “is something that we’d look at seriously.”

Any proposal that would allow natural gas to compete on the same footing as wind and solar, however, would face major opposition, Weiss said. “A low-carbon standard would incent low-carbon kinds of energy, but it would not compete directly with renewables,” he explained. For example, Congress may choose to pass a 15 percent RES and then an additional low-carbon standard of 10 percent, Weiss said.

In Colorado, the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act passed last legislative session compels Xcel Energy — the state’s largest utility — to convert 900 megawatts of coal-fired electrical power to natural gas or renewables such as wind, solar and geothermal. The law has been blasted on the right as an unfair government subsidy of one form of power over another that will ultimately raise the price of electricity for economically hard-hit Coloradans.

The first natural gas-related piece of legislation is slated to come up for a procedural vote next week in the lame-duck session. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has scheduled a cloture vote for Nov. 17 on the Promoting Natural Gas and Electric Vehicles Act of 2010, which would provide incentives for electric and natural gas vehicles. The proposal has bipartisan support and is likely to be the only energy-related bill to see floor action in the lame duck.

While environmentalists support the vehicles proposal, they also say that any effort to encourage natural gas production should be coupled with natural gas drilling reforms. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” involves injecting chemicals, sand and huge quantities of water into the earth to loosen large underground deposits of natural gas. It is currently the cheapest and most widespread method for extracting natural gas from the ground. But environmentalists say the chemicals used during fracking can contaminate groundwater and cause significant damage to the land.

Hamilton, of the Sierra Club, suggested that environmentalists and liberal Democrats would be more likely to support efforts to expand natural gas development if Congress also considers drilling reforms. “We are very much of the mind that the regulatory structure for fracking should be in place before there’s more drilling,” Hamilton said. “The quicker that regulatory structure gets in place, the less resistance they’re going to get.”

Matzner, of the NRDC, called on lawmakers to pass natural gas drilling reforms that, among other things, require companies to disclose the amount and types of chemicals that are used in fracking and tighten regulation of the practice.

“There’s space here to put policies in place to make sure that natural gas is done in a more responsible way,” Matzner said.

There are proposals on the table in the House and the Senate that would address many of these issues. The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act would give the Environmental Protection Agency regulatory authority over fracking. But the EPA is currently conducting a study on fracking that won’t be completed until 2012. Some have suggested it’s best to wait to address the issue in Congress until the study is finished.

Amy Mall, senior policy analyst at NRDC, has been working on fracking issues for years. Based in Colorado, she has seen the environmental impacts of the practice firsthand. Yet she recognizes that natural gas is a necessary part of the country’s energy mix, underscoring the complicated relationships environmentalists have with the fossil fuel. She, like many environmentalists see natural gas as a “bridge fuel,” or an interim step on the way to broader reliance on renewables.

“Our country needs a lot of energy,” she said. “Our first priority should be efficiency, then conservation. In the short term, we can’t meet all of our energy needs. We support natural gas as a bridge fuel, but we don’t think it’s a silver bullet solution.”

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