Green energy advocates should run towards natural gas

Jason Stverak  

Jason Stverak, Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, Alexandria, Va.

Environmentalists have made it no secret that they aren't happy with the dramatic rise of the natural gas industry, but given the current economic climate and global market demand, there's no other form of energy they should be more excited about.

China recently announced its intention to offset its extensive coal use by increasing nationwide use of natural gas from 4% to 10% by 2020 in an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The benefits of natural gas far outweigh those of coal. A recent study in Energy Policy found that burning natural gas produces much less pollution, including sulfur dioxide and mercury.

China also wants to increase its annual shale-gas production to at least 60 billion cubic meters by 2020. China is looking to exploit its own gas deposits—estimated to be near 25 trillion cubic meters or more—but is having trouble exploiting them. So far, Chinese companies have drilled fewer than 100 wells due to difficult geology and oil companies failing to obtain leases. Hence, if China hopes to reduce its reliance on coal, much of the gas will have to be imported.

Enter the booming United States natural gas industry. Shale gas production has grown from 1.3 trillion cubic feet in 2007 to 7.8 trillion cubic feet in 2011. Furthermore, US natural gas production is expected to rise to 33 trillion cubic feet in 2040—almost entirely due to shale gas production. A report by ICF International found that natural gas production will lead to 835,00 to 1.6 million new jobs in the United States by 2017 and increase the country's gross domestic product by $167 billion to $245 billion on a net basis.

The United States has much to gain from selling a percentage of our gas supplies abroad. According to the US Department of Energy, increasing our natural gas exports would result in GDP growth, increased tax revenue, job creation, and a decrease in the trade deficit—generating an additional $10 billion to $30 billion annually in export revenue.

Nevertheless, some green energy advocates are still arguing for an energy strategy that relies wholly on renewable energy. What they're overlooking, however, is the devastating pollution caused by pursuing such a strategy.

The rare earth metals used to build components in smart phones, wind turbines, electric car batteries, and solar panels are mined through a process that releases a multitude of toxins into the environment. Miners use a chemical extraction process that involves digging multiple holes a few feet in depth and feeding pipes into the holes. Then, a concentrated mix of chemicals is pumped into the pipe and chemicals sink into the clay below to push out rare earth metals.

The process heavily pollutes water supplies and air near mining sites—one of the main reasons the US hasn't pursued these resources, despite large deposits located within our borders. Sadly, though, many environmentalists only care about pollution in our country, not the effects it's having halfway around the world. It's an extreme case of not-in-my-backyard syndrome.

Policies that inhibit developing natural gas resources further don't just delay progress for clean energy, they hurt the people that would benefit from the jobs and energy security natural gas provides.

If the US truly wants to be a leader in creating sustainable energy solutions we need policies that not only help natural gas become a chief form of energy domestically, but also one of the leading sources of energy globally. Instead of an all-of-the-above strategy, we should be focusing on the approach with the most promise.

About the author

Jason Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, headquartered in Alexandria, Va. His leadership at the Franklin Center has played a vital role in exposing corruption and encouraging transparency in government. A North Dakota resident, Stverak is also an expert in energy policy and an advocate for smart energy solutions domestically and abroad.

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