Dose of reality 

Natural gas is not going to save the world

Some 15 million Americans believe the moon landings were faked. Millions more are convinced that the sun revolves around the earth, which is approximately 6,000 years old.

Reason and science have their fans, but many Americans find faith more appealing. The National Academy of Sciences has decreed the evidence for climate change unmistakable, but that won't stop Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican, from declaring it a hoax. He's not alone.

"I don't think the human effect is significant," says Harrison "Moon Rock" Schmitt, the last astronaut to (allegedly) explore the lunar surface. What then explains those melting glaciers? Global warming skeptics have many crackpot theories. My favorite came from a housewife in Arkansas, who insists that daylight savings is to blame: "It's that extra hour of sunlight."

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Against this backdrop it's a miracle that the House recently passed a climate change bill. The legislation—1,500 pages of bratwurst—may not pass the Senate, but it's worth asking what might happen if the nation ever got serious about reducing greenhouse gases.

In July, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, addressed hundreds of natural gas executives at a conference in Denver. A year ago Ritter was in the midst of a bruising battle with the industry, as he championed new standards for drilling and wildlife protection. Now, facing a tough re-election challenge, he struck a conciliatory note.

"Natural gas is a vital part of the new energy economy—not a bridge fuel, not a transition fuel, but a mission-critical fuel," the governor proclaimed. "We can't begin to address climate change in a meaningful way without using more natural gas."

In recent months, clean-energy advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and former Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth have echoed similar sentiments. "Climate disruption is real," Wirth told the Denver conference. "The gas industry must play a major role in saving the world."

Wirth and Ritter are right. The big question is what to do about coal. Each day, 10,000 hopper cars heaped with coal—enough to fill a train 110 miles long—trundle out of the Rockies, bound for power plants as distant as Florida. Of course, we burn our share of coal here at home, too. Throughout the Intermountain West, coal provides about 75 percent of the electricity. Gov. Ritter has called for a 20 percent reduction in electric-sector greenhouse emissions by 2020. This is a tall order, in no small part because the state may add 1 million people by then.

Population is rarely broached in climate discussions, which is unfortunate because growth is a big deal. Reducing emissions while people are increasing is like running down an up escalator. To hit Ritter's target, all growth in demand would need to be met through conservation and a multibillion dollar investment in carbon-free wind, solar or nuclear energy. Simultaneously, you'd have to retire nearly one-half of Colorado's coal plants and somehow replace their output.

Could conservation fill the entire gap? Getting energy-saving to happen on such a large scale in such a short time would be difficult. The inconvenient truth is that the typical household uses 10 percent more electricity than it did a decade ago.

The politics of fuel switching are difficult, because it would raise electric rates and because coal's markup rivals that of Fiji Water. Each year, the nation's utilities spin $40 billion worth of coal into $160 billion of electricity. Although the average coal plant is nearly 40 years old, there's no incentive to retire it, even though it produces three times more carbon dioxide than a modern gas turbine. Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain gas industry is suffering through its worst year in recent history. Commodity prices have cratered, and not a single coal bed methane well was drilled in Wyoming's Powder River Basin in June, welcome news to local environmental groups.

For the next year or two, the nation is likely to remain awash in gas. But if the whole nation were to embrace fuel switching, as it may need to do to reduce emissions quickly, the glut would disappear and much more gas would be needed. Gas reserves aren't the issue, due to the discovery of large new sources of shale gas. But to displace large amounts of coal, natural gas drilling would need to resume the frantic, helter-skelter pace of recent years.

It's a heartbreaking dilemma: The gas industry has not been gentle on Western landscapes, but climate change could be worse. So pick your poison. To displace coal with gas, we'd need to complete 30,000 to 40,000 new wells a year for decades to come. If that's our only strategy for averting climate disaster, we might need to put somebody like Sarah Palin in charge of drilling.

Randy Udall is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about energy in Carbondale, Colorado.

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