It's not dirty to see gas as energy solution
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I don't hate the idea of Marcellus Shale drilling, which puts me in dutch with some environmentalists.
I know some use "environmentalist'' as a slur, but I'm generally in sympathy with the green team. I walk, bike or take public transportation to work; our family of four gets by with one car; we generally use fans rather than air conditioners; we recycle more than we throw away; we compost; we use a rain barrel for the garden.
In short, I'm confident that when the global warming trials are held (either in Santa Monica or Vancouver, which will be as hot as Santa Monica by then), I won't be sentenced to hearing tapes of Al Gore speeches while being poked with shards of old plastic water bottles.
Still, any column that mentions the good that has come from the Marcellus Shale boom is sure to bring accusations that I'm an industry shill.
The debate in Western Pennsylvania is often one of extremes. Knee-jerk conservatives are in complete denial about the environmental dangers of fracking while knee-jerk liberals seem oblivious to the ways cheap natural gas is already helping the environment.
The New York Times reported this week that more than 100 of the roughly 500 coal-burning power plants in this country are expected to shut down in the next few years. In just four years, coal has slipped from providing half the nation's power to about a third of it. Part of that's due to stricter pollution rules, but the surge in natural gas supply that has driven down prices could be even more important.
American Electric Power, the nation's largest consumer of coal, just switched an electric plant in coal-rich eastern Kentucky to the cleaner and cheaper fossil fuel. Its chairman explained succinctly: "The math screams at you to do gas."
This switch is not entirely a net gain, alas. Jeff Schmidt, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club, co-wrote a piece for the Post-Gazette 18 months ago that touted natural gas as a jobs-producing, imports-cutting "transition fuel'' on the path to ever-cleaner, renewable power.
Now, says Mr. Schmidt, it may be more like trading one bad fuel source for another.
He's among many who think industry-friendly state legislation went too far when it stripped localities of zoning control over drilling. (Pennsylvania's odd variant of conservatism says federal regulation is bad, state regulation is good but local regulation is also bad.) Worse, the "trade secret'' exemptions mean we might not even be able to know what chemicals have leaked into streams, Mr. Schmidt said.
We also know more about the byproducts of drilling than we did even 18 months ago, he said. Methane and other pollutants produced at drilling sites are offsetting gains made by burning less coal.
He said there wasn't enough data to know what, if any, net gain there was in making the switch.
"It's going to depend on the scientists' assumptions, and different scientists use different assumptions,'' he said.
OK, so it's not all sweetness bringing us the light. The fact remains, though, that we can't function without electricity. We also need to stay warm in winter. If coal, natural gas and nuclear power aren't options, there isn't enough wind and solar power to fill the void.
So, until that changes, home-drilled natural gas trumps imported oil. If the Pennsylvania coal industry takes a hit, that's offset by new jobs in the natural gas industry. That it has already become cheaper to power and heat our homes is no small benefit either.
I'm rooting for the localities that have brought suit against the state to regain the lost local control on drilling, and I agree with Mr. Schmidt that the cleaner rivers and air we enjoy today are the result of "people in the trenches ... working against entrenched economic interests.'' The methane issue worries me.
Yet, at the end of the day, I'll be glad if the lights come on with gas rather than coal. I'll be glad if the gas we use to warm our homes doesn't have to come very far to get there. That has environmental benefit if it's done right, and we ought to be able to do it right.
That, anyway, is the lonely wishfulness here in the far middle of the Marcellus debate.
First Published May 31, 2012 12:00 am