Greens used to like gas, but something about the shale boom soured them on the energy source. What happened? The Wall Street Journal reports:
For years, environmental groups saw gas as something of an ally in the cause. Gas has half the carbon footprint of coal. It was the ideal substitute for coal and a “bridge” to greater use of renewable energy such as wind and solar.But as shale gas production soared, the price of natural gas plummeted. Environmental groups now worry that gas is moving in to stay, taking the momentum out of the shift to nonpolluting renewables, slowing conservation, and creating new environmental problems.
So what changed the minds of greens? Well, there are a number of complaints. One of the most common boils down to a Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) sentiment: local stakeholders resent the sudden influx of oil and gas wells and their attendant nuisances (like trucks and drilling equipment). There are valid concerns about these disruptions, which individual communities must resolve themselves. But in the US, at least, landowners own the mineral rights to the resources directly under their property and drillers compensate them for access to shale energy.Many greens have griped about methane leakage in the shale gas drilling process. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, though it has a much shorter lifespan in the atmosphere. A study released in 2011 purported to show that because of methane leakage natural gas is worse for the climate than coal, which sent environmentalists into high dudgeon. But since its release, that study has wilted under the scrutiny of peer review, having made many “unsupportable assumptions.”Fine, greens will say, maybe natural gas is better for our climate than coal. But shale gas is still a fossil fuel, and to the extent that it displaces renewables like wind and solar, it’s bad for the environment. While this contention is the greens’ most reasonable (that’s not saying very much), it doesn’t hold up either. Here’s why: natural gas plants are much cheaper to build than coal-fired plants, and cheaper to scale up as needed. Coal plants, once built, are going to burn as much coal as they can, for as long as they can, to recoup their high capital investment. That makes them ill-suited as complements to intermittent renewable energy sources like solar and wind, which need some other energy source to supply the grid power when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Cheaper gas plants have less imperative to run 24/7. In that sense, natural gas doesn’t inhibit the growth of renewables; it enables it.Any kind of drilling entails risks; a recent study on earthquakes caused by fracking is troubling, and a recent fire on an offshore natural gas rig stresses the need for smart regulation to minimize these dangers. But many greens seem incapable of seeing the rewards that come along with these risks. There’s a balance to be struck here, and unfortunately the most passionate voices on the issue seem to have deserted that middle ground.[Oil rig image and plant image courtesy of Shutterstock]