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This Is What's Wrong with Green Thinking

A new piece by the ever outspoken Bill McKibben, co-written with Mike Tidwell, encapsulates the shortcomings of the modern green movement. “A Big Fracking Lie,” published by Politico earlier this week, decries the growing momentum for exporting America’s glut of natural gas. It has everything you might expect from a piece co-written by one of the leaders of the modern environmental movement, including emotional imagery in spades:

The new plant, proposed by Virginia-based Dominion Resources, would somehow be built right between a coveted state park and a stretch of sleepy beach communities, with a smattering of Little League baseball fields just down the road. Along the Chesapeake itself, endangered tiger beetles cling to the shore while Maryland “watermen” hunt crabs and oysters in age-old fashion.

McKibben and Tidwell seem to be trying to stoke NIMBY sentiment here. The liquefaction plant is being built a stone’s throw from where the nation’s youth will learn our national pastime! But you could describe wind farms in equally sinister terms, as monolithic white giants “polluting” pristine ridgelines with unceasing, rhythmic, low-frequency whumps and eerie, blinking red lights. Every energy source can run afoul of NIMBY concerns, renewables included. We make compromises with communities because we need to site our solar panels and nuclear plants and gas-fired facilities somewhere.

But the authors aren’t just attacking the Maryland facility; they’re questioning the whole concept of natural gas exports on the grounds that such a policy would be an environmental catastrophe:

Simply put, this gas needs to stay in the ground. If it’s dug up and exported, it will directly harm just about everyone in the U.S. economy while simultaneously making global warming worse. How much worse? Imagine adding the equivalent of more than 100 coal plants to U.S. pollution output or putting 78 million more cars on our roads. Yes, supporters say, but this gas would be replacing a lot of coal use overseas. And they’d be right. The only problem is we’d be replacing that coal with aggregate “life-cycle” emissions from gas that are almost certainly worse than coal, creating new net damage for the global atmosphere.

Somehow, natural gas, which emits roughly half the carbon dioxide as coal when burned, is worse than coal when exported. This is based on the idea that, in the process of drilling and transporting natural gas, some of it escapes in to the atmosphere unburned. Such leakages are undoubtedly concerning, but have been overstated by the green movement for the purposes of discrediting fracking.

But the oddest part of the Politico piece is the claim that exporting LNG will only benefit gas industry fat cats at the expense of the common man:

On the economic side, a study commissioned by the DOE last spring found that exporting U.S. gas would raise the fuel’s price here at home. It’s basic supply and demand. More buyers overseas will drive up our domestic price by as much as 27 percent, according to the DOE. And that increase will reduce incomes for virtually every sector of the U.S. economy, from agriculture to manufacturing to services to transportation…

The DOE found that only one economic sector wins from gas exports. You guessed it: the gas industry! This one special interest wins so big—hundreds of billions in profits—that the DOE now basically argues that it offsets the pain for everyone else, creating a perverse and tiny net bump in the nation’s GDP. If you’re a farmer or wage-earner, too bad. Dominion’s profits at Cove Point are more important than the financial lives of already-struggling average Americans.

In their populist appeal to the beleaguered average American, McKibben and Tidwell admit something that has so far been anathema to greens: our current glut of shale gas is a good thing for the American economy. It’s true that exporting LNG will drive domestic natural gas prices up. That’s why the Obama Administration has been so hesitant to permit new liquefaction facilities like the one in Cove Point. But it’s also true that such exports will have net economic benefits for the United States, and ultimately these decisions will be made on the basis of economic, not environmental, concerns. The United States can fetch a better price for its gas abroad, and our allies, especially in Asia, would dearly like America to get into the LNG game.

We need better green thinkers than this.

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  • ljgude

    The Book of Revelation belongs to an ancient literary form called an apocalypse. It is the only apocalypse to make it into the New Testament but many were written before and after the birth of our Savior – to be quaint. So in the spirit of quaintness we might think of this piece as the Apocalypse of Bill and Mike. Hark, I say unto thee that even as coal is dirtier than gas so is gas dirtier than coal and if thou burnest one or the other of them the end will come more quickly!

  • qet

    I suppose this will be chicken soup for the souls of those who have committed theirs to the care of the Church of the Latter Day Environment. “McKibben, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” So I agree with ljgude’s Biblical comparison. This is just the latest iteration of the same litany preached by the Green choir, and like most litanies it neither wants nor bears close scrutiny. Just repeat after me. . . . . . .

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