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America's Gas Problem

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Most US politicians regard natural gas as the key element in our energy policy. In his January State-of-the-Union address President Obama said, "[Natural gas is] the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change." Many environmentalists disagree; John Farrell describes natural gas as "a gateway drug."

President Obama isn't alone believing that the US must have an all-of-the-above energy policy; slowly reducing our use of coal while heavily relying on natural gas and ramping up renewables. The Washington conventional wisdom argues the US can't meet its energy needs, and reduce carbon emissions, without using natural gas as our primary energy source. This perspective has become one of the few points of agreement between Democrats and Republicans. (Although every time there's any disruption in the international oil market, Republicans reprise their "drill, baby, drill" refrain.) But there are four problems with this perspective.

History teaches that the conventional wisdom is often wrong and dogmatically clinging to it reduces opportunity, in the long run. After all, it was once the conventional wisdom that the earth was flat (and the center of the universe). Just before the Montgomery bus boycott, it was the conventional wisdom that it would take many decades to end segregation. (In 2007, it was the conventional wisdom that an African-American could not be elected President.)

As a (retired) technologist, I've seen the conventional wisdom about computers change numerous times: at first, computers were thought to have limited uses; then the mainframe was regarded as the "center" of the information universe; more recently is was believed that smart devices - such as phones and tablets - were not as versatile as personal computers.

The second problem with the natural-gas-as-a-bridge paradigm is that it creates the false impression we have the global-climate-change problem under control. Journalist Amy Harder observed:

First, shifting significantly away from coal to natural gas doesn't get the planet anywhere close to the carbon-reduction levels scientists say we must reach. And second, while the natural-gas boom is great for the economy and the immediate reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, it has deflated the political urgency to cut fossil-fuel dependence, which was more compelling when we thought our resources of oil and natural gas were scarce.

American public opinion reflects the weakening of our will to address global climate change. A recent Gallup Poll found the majority of respondents (54 percent) believe that the effects of global warming are "already happening." However, only a third (36 percent) believe "global warming will pose a serious threat to you or your way of life in your lifetime."

This flies in the face of reality. Writing in ROLLING STONE, environmentalist Bill McKibben observed that we can only emit 564 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050 and still have a reasonable chance of keeping the temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius (the threshold for catastrophic consequences). Last year we pumped a record 36 gigatons into the atmosphere; at this rate we'll exceed 564 gigs in about a decade. (McKibben also pointed out that the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies are 2975 gigatons , "the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn.")

The natural-gas-as-a-bridge paradigm has slowed down the pace of critical adaptation. If Americans are going to hit a horrific environmental threshold in slightly more than a decade then we need to start changing our behavior now; but we're stuck in our old ways. Writing in the Washington Post, Brad Plumer observed:

Say the world wants to stabilize the amount of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere at about 450 parts per million -- giving us a shot at limiting global warming below 2°C. If that's the goal, then the world can use natural gas for only a brief period before transitioning to carbon-free power. Global gas consumption would have to peak by 2020 or 2030.

We must move aggressively into renewables now.

The fourth problem is there are negative costs associated with the natural-gas-as-a-bridge strategy. A recent report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science enumerated the risks of global climate change. There are serious public health consequences including air pollution, infectious diseases, drought, flooding, extreme heat, and extreme weather, in general.

And, of course, there are major economic repercussions. A recent UN report indicated, "The effects of global warming could cost the world $1.45 trillion in economic damages, with the planet's crop production projected to decline up to two percent every decade." Reliance upon fossil fuels deflates the US economy. The Rocky Mountain Institute noted that 76 percent of American industry relies upon fossil fuel power. They projected that if the US moved off of carbon-based fuels to renewable fuels, there would be $5 trillion in savings, growing the economy by an estimated 158 percent.

John Farrell is right when he says, "Natural gas isn't a bridge, it's a relapse."