Speaking in New Hampshire yesterday, President Obama signaled that he will not go wobbly on energy during the upcoming campaign (climate is another story). He made a strong case for his commitment to the clean-power revolution, and vowed to end $4 billion in subsidies for Big Oil and Gas. "You can either stand up for the oil companies, or you can stand up for the American people," Obama said. "You can keep subsidizing a fossil fuel that’s been getting taxpayer dollars for a century, or you can place your bets on a clean-energy future." He also showed off this chart, which illustrates how America’s dependence on foreign oil has gone down every year since Obama took office. Cutting subsidies and reducing our dependence on foreign oil are the no-brainers of energy policy, the kind of initiatives that Tea Partiers and Treehuggers both love. In that sense, it's classic Obama; the president is highly skilled at taking uncontroversial policy initiatives and making them sound like bold, revolutionary ideas.
But I want to highlight one sentence from yesterday's speech that is dangerously misinformed. It's about natural gas, a subject that Obama has been pretty high on recently. In his State of the Union speech in January, he blew a big wet kiss to frackers and shale gas drillers everywhere, while promising to "develop [America’s gas reserves] without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk." Yesterday, Obama touted the economic benefits of investing in clean-energy technology: "Because of the investments we’ve made, the use of clean, renewable energy in this country has nearly doubled – and thousands of Americans have jobs because of it."
Then he said this: "We’re taking every possible action to develop a near 100-year supply of natural gas, which releases fewer carbons." By "carbons," I assume he is coining a new phrase for "carbon dioxide pollution." That’s O.K. He's the president; he can make up new words. But there are at least three other things wrong with this sentence.
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1. It suggests that natural gas is a clean, renewable form of energy. O.K., he doesn’t say that explicitly, but the suggestion is there. So let’s be very clear: natural gas is a fossil fuel. It’s 350 million years old (give or take). It needs to be extracted from the ground, which, thanks to the fracking boom, we now know has many adverse environmental consequences, from contaminated wells to the industrialization of rural areas. It also needs to be burned to create heat or electricity, which creates air pollution. Compared to coal, which generates almost half the electricity in the United States, natural gas is indeed a cleaner, less polluting fuel. But compared to, say, solar, it’s filthy. And of course there is nothing renewable about natural gas.
2. It implies that 100 years of natural gas is a sure thing. It is not. The whole question of how much gas we have – or oil or coal, for that matter – is fraught with uncertainty. It depends on factors like price and demand and whether new technologies can be developed to get at hard-to-extract gas, and whether or not you care that we blast and drill our way through suburbs and National Parks. Chris Nelder over at Slate has a good primer on this. As Nelder points out, when you look at actual proven reserves, we have only about 11 years worth of gas. If that's true, it raises a whole lot of interesting questions about future energy investments. I mean, if T. Boone Pickens wants to invest hundreds of millions of his dollars to convert vehicles to natural gas, that’s up to him – but why invest big public dollars in a fuel that might not last much more than a decade?
3. It argues that switching to natural gas will reduce the risk of global warming. True, burning natural gas – aka methane – releases about half as much CO2 as an equivalent amount of coal. But the problem is that when it comes to trapping heat, methane is about 21 times as potent as CO2 (although is stays in the atmosphere a much shorter time). And as it turns out, a lot of methane leaks out into the atmosphere in the course of producing natural gas. Exactly how much, and with what effect, is hotly debated. Some studies have shown that natural gas could, in fact, be worse for the climate than coal. But even if you don’t factor in leakage rates, shifting to natural gas is not going to begin to stop global warming. As a new study by climate scientist Ken Caldeira and tech billionaire Nathan Myhrvold argues, shifting to natural gas "cannot substantially reduce the climate risk in the next 100 years." I know wonky papers can be a drag to slog through, but this one is important and well worth a read.
So rather than being a "bridge fuel" to the future, as many natural gas boosters like to call it, natural gas may turn out to be, as climate blogger Joe Romm puts it, a "bridge fuel to nowhere." Obama, of course, is never going to say that. But a little less wide-eyed boosterism would be welcome.