Will a Controversial Study Set Back an Emerging Climate Coalition?
The loose coalition that unites around climate, energy and security concerns is in for a big test.
Before I explain why, here's some quick background. If "climate hawks" and national security hawks in the U.S. have common cause, it's supposedly over the issue of energy independence, or as it is popularly referred to today, energy security. Their fragile bond is partially forged by the support each group has pledged for natural gas. Many climate hawks view natural gas as a "bridge fuel to a low-carbon future." National security hawks want to wean the U.S. off of foreign oil and onto domestically-produced energy, including natural gas. The stars have aligned for these odd bedfellows to unite.
To understand why, let's rewind to President's Obama big energy speech three weeks ago (framed specifically around the energy security theme), when he noted that the "potential for natural gas is enormous," and that,
Recent innovations have given us the opportunity to tap large reserves –- perhaps a century’s worth of reserves, a hundred years worth of reserves -– in the shale under our feet. But just as is true in terms of us extracting oil from the ground, we’ve got to make sure that we’re extracting natural gas safely, without polluting our water supply.
The President's caveat was a reference to the well-chronicled issues with the drilling innovation (hydraulic fracturing) that has enabled access to formerly untapped gas deposits. The local environmental concerns associated with "fracking" are perceived as the industry's big achilles heel.
Until last week, that is, when a controversial Cornell study was released to much fanfare. The headlines (such as this one from BBC, "Shale gas 'worse than coal' for climate") suggested that the peer-reviewed paper might land a deadly blow to the clean green image of natural gas. Charlie Petit in the Knight Science Journalism Tracker wrote up an overview of the immediate press coverage and spelled out the implications:
What was green for go just turned red for stop. It says that natural gas, especially the sort extracted by hydrofracturing from shale, is just about as potent as a climate changer when one factors in the methane – its primary component – that leaks unburned into the air during extraction and processing prior to burning. And methane is considerably more potent as a solar forcing agent than is CO2.
Now I happen to think that many of the media stories uncritically parroted the study's findings and only included the obligatory industry response. But in fact, serious questions about the study's data and methodology were raised immediately by some scientists and energy experts.
What's interesting about the timing of all this is that it coincided with a newly introduced congressional bill called the "New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act " or "NAT GAS Act" — or as business columnist Joe Nocera wrote in The New York Times, otherwise known as the "Boone Pickens bill," informally named after the 82-year-old Texas oil tycoon, who has been promoting a variation of it for more than a year. As Nocera explained:
The Pickens bill creates tax incentives — $1 billion a year for five years — to encourage manufacturers to begin building heavy-duty trucks that will be powered by natural gas instead of diesel. It also gives some tax incentives to truck-stop owners who install natural gas filling stations to help create the infrastructure.
The idea has wide bipartisan support, was backed by President Obama in his recent energy speech, and has been endorsed by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank known for its close ties to the Obama Administration. While Nocera also gave his blessing in his Times column, Fen Montaigne of Yale Environment 360 asked last week if the Pickens plan "is good for the U.S. or just T. Boone?"
Does the Cornell study casting a critical light on the climate benefits of shale gas cripple the natural gas "bridge" that Congress is set to act on? Probably not in the short term, but as Bill Hewitt surmises, the study "could break the hearts" of environmentalists who had "embraced" natural gas.