Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, catapulted global warming into the spotlight and helped bring business and environmental leaders together to reduce fossil fuel dependence.
Now a new documentary film, Gasland, aims to build opposition to natural gas production in the U.S. Recently nominated for an Academy Award, the documentary focuses on the problems of "hydraulic fracturing," commonly called "fracking," a form of natural gas drilling.
That's understandable. When residents of small Colorado towns turn on their faucets, and find that their tap water has caught fire, it can be a little disconcerting, even if -- as the state later concluded -- the problem was naturally occurring methane unrelated to fracking.
Absolutely, natural gas fracking needs to regulated. Many fracking operations are carried out by small operators with little experience and a wild west mentality that leads to problems like those featured in Gasland. To mend those problems, fracking regulations need to do five things:
(1) Require transparency - the public has a right to know exactly what chemicals are used in fracking
(2) Protect groundwater - drinking water should not be compromised by fracking
(3) Protect the air - methane byproducts should be captured, not released
(4) Protect sensitive areas - treasured lands should not be placed at risk
(5) Protect property rights - property owners should not have their legal rights compromised
It is important that we in the environmental community take a smart approach to natural gas. Demonizing it as no better than coal would not only damage the environment, but severely set back our efforts to protect the climate and put a price on carbon.
First, anything that curtails natural gas use right now leads directly to more coal use.
Second, if we take a smart approach to regulating natural gas, we can forge the powerful political coalition we need to win federal action on climate, including a price on carbon - even with a GOP Congress. Right now, the coal sector dominates electricity production in the U.S. So long as it does, electricity will be our major uncontrolled contribution to global warming.
Natural gas producers have an interest in shifting this production away from coal. So do we.
We need to shift the electricity sector to a low carbon future. That means more wind and solar, but in the meantime, more natural gas for the next decade. Much as we might wish otherwise, more development is needed before we can turn the electricity grid over to renewables alone.
Gasland aligns with a very credible narrative, one that folks on the right and left largely resonate with: neither big business nor regulators can be trusted. A New York Times review calls this "maddening." But it's understandable for a popular film designed for a mass audience to appeal to those who are "predisposed to distrust big business and the bureaucrats that regulate it." That would be - hmm - roughly 99% of the American population, I figure.
Unfortunately, if we were to cross natural gas fracking off the list of energy sources, we would suffer a variety of uncomfortable and unintended consequences.
First, we would severely worsen the nation's carbon footprint, by locking the electricity grid into a continued reliance on coal, just at the moment when we are best positioned to break coal's hold.
Second, we would foreclose an excellent opportunity to build a left-right alliance for a price on carbon.
You might not notice it, based on recent Tea Party rhetoric. But there are major forces on the conservative side of the political spectrum who want to put a price on carbon. They don't favor it simply for the positive impacts on carbon pollution. They are often more motivated by the national security and economic prosperity interests.
National security advocates want a price on carbon because it will reduce oil imports from nations they regard as our political enemies, and reduce the power of terrorists. Economic prosperity advocates want a price on carbon because it will help drive innovation and technology development, and serve our long-term economic interests.
They are fighting behind-the-scenes to assure that Tea Party stalwarts don't unwittingly block the GOP from supporting a carbon price just because Al Gore wants them to.
But they will only support a price on carbon if it doesn't come with a major reduction in domestic energy production.
If both coal and natural gas are taken off the table, then the U.S. is left even more reliant on foreign oil. That reduces the basis for conservative support for a price on carbon. And, sorry, a left-only alliance for climate protection has almost no chance of success.
It may take some nose-plugging on the part of some groups, but the environmental community needs to strike a bargain with natural gas: mend it, don't end it. We need to forge an alliance that recognizes natural gas is a bridge fuel, to take us from fossil fuel reliance, to an economy founded on renewables.
Gasland director Josh Fox does a skillful job of demonizing fracking with a Michael Moore-like montage of mysterious chemicals, bleak landscapes, unresponsive industry flacks, and hints of conspiracy involving Dick Cheney and Halliburton.
But natural gas is a key part of America's clean energy and security landscape. This is why President Obama included it as part of his definition of "clean energy" in his 2011 State of the Union address. The U.S. has more recoverable gas than was previously thought, and new drilling technologies have improved both costs and environmental controls.
We need those best practices to be adopted throughout the sector.
Gasland is a powerful film. But this time, we in the environmental community need to face an inconvenient truth: regulation, not demonization, serves our interests best.
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