07/28/2014 12:03 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

The Gas Trap

Natural gas is all the rage. Power plants are rushing to convert from coal or oil to gas-fired production. Businesses are converting boilers. Homeowners are switching to gas furnaces. Drillers are sucking it out of shale and pipeline companies are plotting thousands of miles of new pipeline. Natural gas is hailed as a "bridge" from the dirty fossil fuels of coal and oil, embraced as much better for our environment and much cheaper for consumers.

But this is a fool's gold rush. We are making a grave mistake in creating an infrastructure built on natural gas, which fails on both environmental and economic grounds.

Increasingly, we are realizing the escaped methane from drilling and moving natural gas is as destructive--or more so--than our present carbon dioxide emissions. Although in the lab, burned methane releases half the greenhouse gases as coal, too much methane leaks--or is intentionally vented at oil drilling sites. And methane has 86 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide over a span of two decades.

Cornell University scientist Robert Howarth, building on a 2011 study, recently calculated that a leakage rate of up to nearly 8 percent for fracked gas and 6 percent for well-drilled gas means natural gas is worse for our environment than coal or oil, over the next 20 years. He called natural gas "a bridge to nowhere."

A report this month by the EPA's Inspector General found no agency is adequately monitoring leaks in the nation's 1.2 million miles of natural gas distribution lines.

And the hydraulic fracturing process increasingly used to extract natural gas is showing itself to be as polluting--though in different ways--than the soot that wafted from coal plants. Water supplies are being drained, drinking water contaminated, and air around drilling sites fouled.

The lure of cheaper prices also is a trap. Europe and Asia pay two to four times as much as we do for natural gas, because it's difficult to move the gaseous fuel around the globe. But U.S. gas companies are salivating to get export terminals built and approved and pipelines in place to freeze the volatile product into Liquid Natural Gas to be sent overseas in pressurized tanker ships. When that happens, the artificially low price we enjoy here will skyrocket toward the world market price of natural gas.

But we will be stuck. We will be unwilling to scrap the 26,400 existing and planned gas generators, the thousands of miles of new gas pipelines on the drawing boards, and the uncounted gas furnaces and boilers now being installed. We are constructing an infrastructure designed and amortized for a 30- to 70-year life, and the anchor of sunk costs will chain us to that fuel.

Many environmentalists argue that moving to natural gas is a necessary step to reduce greenhouse gases while we build renewable sources of energy. That ignores our history: when oil and gasoline prices spiked, we found religion in renewables. But as soon as prices eased, we didn't go back to church. Only a crisis will compel us to undertake the crash program in wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and energy efficiency that we need. If natural gas is a "bridge" to a cleaner fuel, it's a bridge that will get us there too late.

If we chase the pyrite of natural gas, we will not only lock ourselves into higher prices and the continued spiral of climate change, but we will have squandered an opportunity. Rather than spending billions to build a gas infrastructure, we could invest that in creating a new era of renewable energy--with all the jobs and benefits it would bring. Rather than using construction companies and workers to make a soon-to-be obsolete system, we should put them to work creating clean, cheap and inexhaustible supplies of energy for the 21st Century. That is a future for us all.