In places like Ithaca, New York, green advocates might be fighting to keep natural-gas companies away, but in Washington, D.C., progressive leaders and national environmental groups are ready to fight for natural gas as a source of clean energy.
Take Tim Wirth. The former senator, who came to Congress in 1974 as a representative from Boulder, Colorado, asked climate guru James Hansen to testify about global warming in 1988 and worked in the State Department on climate-change issues during the Clinton administration. Long familiar with the natural-gas industry, Wirth, who now heads Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation, is pushing its leaders to cuddle up to their peers in the solar and wind industries.
"What happens when the wind doesn't blow? What happens when the sun doesn't shine? It's natural gas that should be filling that gap," Wirth told natural-gas producers last summer at a conference in Colorado. "You should be the closest buddies of the wind and solar industry."
Natural gas is a fossil fuel that emits clouds of carbon, and its extraction can dirty air, water, and land. Yet natural gas has a place in the staunchest environmentalists' plans for the future of American energy. In part, they support natural gas because they know wind and solar will not be enough to meet America's fuel needs for years to come. More important, though, natural gas burns cleaner than coal. The climate bill that the House passed last June would give the coal industry plenty of leeway to keep its carbon-spewing plants open. If environmental groups want climate legislation that does more to clamp down on carbon emissions, the natural-gas industry is their ally against coal.
"The emergency is coal and oil," says Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace USA. "And it's natural gas that poses a competitive threat."
Until recently, natural gas had no chance of supplanting coal: The amount of gas available was too small. In the 1990s, groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Greenpeace floated the idea of natural gas as a "bridge fuel" between the dirty past and the clean future. At the same time, a fleet of natural--gas plants went up around the country and burned enough gas to spike the fuel's price. Energy bills in gas-producing states like Oklahoma and Texas went up, Congress denounced the shortage, and companies pushed to open public lands to drilling. Policy-makers and analysts dismissed natural gas as an energy solution and focused on technologies like "clean" coal and biofuels. But hydrofracture drilling, or hydrofracking, which involves using water and chemicals to open cracks in gas-rich shale formations, solved natural gas' supply problem. New wells using this technology have tapped into gas reserves so huge that the industry is now saying that natural gas could power America for one hundred years or more.
The Center for American Progress (CAP), for instance, had focused its energy-policy recommendations on biofuels and renewables like wind or solar but now promotes natural gas. "The reason for the recent interest in natural gas is that, with advances in technology, there's great opportunity to develop shale gas," says Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at CAP. "While a few years ago we were worried about natural-gas shortages, now there is a big gas surplus, and there may not be enough room to store it all."
This new wealth of low--carbon fuel bubbled up just as coal companies were extracting protections and incentives for their industry from members of Congress working on climate legislation. The coal industry was undermining both environmentalists' hopes for a real shift in energy production and the natural-gas industry's chance at holding on to a greater share of the energy market. The alignment of these interests has made for unexpected partnerships. John Podesta, the president of CAP, has appeared alongside T. Boone Pickens, the oil baron who funded Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and who is promoting wind energy and natural gas. Carl Pope, the head of the Sierra Club, has made the rounds on Capitol Hill with the head of the Chesapeake Energy Company, Aubrey McClendon, another Swift Boat benefactor and a bundler for the McCain campaign.
For both sides of these alliances, however, the advantages only go so far. While progressives are pushing natural gas as a step toward dependence on renewable energy sources, the natural-gas industry sees it as being a major energy source for much longer. A recent ad by the Clean Skies Foundation, an industry-funded nonprofit, calls natural gas "the gateway to a better world of energy." Or as Roger Cooper, an executive vice president of the American Gas Association, says, if natural gas is a bridge fuel, "it's a very long bridge."
Groups like Greenpeace and NRDC have reservations about hydrofracking but try to balance them against natural gas' carbon advantages. It helps that the boom is happening while Democrats, who are more willing to put in the safeguards that green groups favor, control the legislative and executive branches. When Dick Cheney was vice president and the energy industry had free rein in Washington, environmental groups had more to worry about. At a 2001 hearing, an NRDC analyst, who testified after eight industry representatives, had to argue against drilling in places like the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and Utah's Red Rock Desert. In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency found that hydrofracking did not contaminate drinking water, and in 2005 Congress exempted the process from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. National environmental groups are not asking the Obama administration to reconsider hydro-fracking altogether, but they are encouraging the EPA and Congress to update the rules governing the industry.
The federal government is taking a second look at the potential environmental impacts that were brushed aside during the last administration. In 2009, Congress directed the EPA to conduct a new study of hydrofracking: The agency agrees that there are "compelling reasons" to worry about effects on ground and surface water and says it is working to start the study as soon as possible. Legislators also started circulating a piece of legislation known as the FRAC Act, which would restore the EPA's ability to regulate the technique. Rep. Henry Waxman's House Energy and Commerce Committee started investigating the gas industry's drilling practices, and the committee's first report revealed that Halliburton and other companies had violated a voluntary agreement with the EPA to keep diesel-based chemicals like benzene out of fluids used in the process.
The natural-gas industry has shown more interest in fighting against the coal industry in the Senate round of climate-bill negotiations, but even without significant advantages built into the final legislation, natural gas should feature more prominently in the nation's energy mix in the coming years. The new supply of shale gas could fix the price volatility that kept the industry a small player until now.
A long-term relationship between natural gas and renewable energy, however, might not materialize. "The industry's not ready to make that shift," Wirth says. "It's palpably in their self-interest to do so, but to date they have not."