Energy Policy: Is the Obama Administration Changing Its Tune On Natural Gas?

Natural gas currently satisfies nearly a quarter of the country’s total energy needs. Gas is clean-burning and has less environmental impact than either oil or coal. We have a secure and abundant supply in North America, the technology to drill and produce it efficiently, and a robust distribution network to deliver it to market. Natural gas drilling could generate new, good-paying jobs by the thousands, and not two years from now, but now. At current prices, gas delivers the same energy as a barrel of oil at a third of the cost. What’s not to like?

Policy makers have conflated natural gas with oil and coal as “fossil fuels”, fuels of a bygone era. When candidates intone, “We must end our dependence on fossil fuels,” most of us nod and uncritically accept the notion. We project oil’s perceived shortcomings onto natural gas (“Peak Oil”, dependence on the Middle East, balance of trade deficits, and the environmental threat of spills), when none of those issues is relevant to natural gas. With the arguable exception of nuclear fission, the steady blue flame of natural gas represents the closest thing we have to an ideal fuel.

Until now, the Obama Administration’s “Green Jobs” rhetoric and the stated commitment to wind and solar had the future for natural gas looking mighty bleak, despite the obvious advantages. Just last April, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that using natural gas as a transportation fuel “will put a strain on natural gas for industrial uses, for heating, and other things“.

Lately, however, there are signs that the Obama Administration might be changing its tune.

Six months of energy company-bashing rhetoric was red meat for the Greens and Watermelons, but somewhere there must be some grown-ups around who realize that they have a country to run. Brownouts and blackouts tend to be unpopular with even the Greenest of voters. At this point, the planners have figured out that it is impractical impossible to build a sufficient number of solar cells and windmills to take up the slack if we were to forsake traditional fuels. They also realize that, even though combustion of natural gas releases carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, per unit of energy it’s a third less than oil and half that of coal. Those who are serious about reducing atmospheric CO2 are starting to realize that they can have more impact, quicker, if natural gas to displaces oil as a transportation fuel. The alternative is to wait for solar and wind to ramp up from nearly zero.

NPC to study future transport fuels, N. American oil and gas

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu would like the National Petroleum Council to conduct studies on future transportation fuels and on prudent development of North American oil and gas resources, NPC members learned at their Sept. 17 meeting.

“It is the policy objective of the United States to protect our nation from the serious economic and strategic risks associated with our excessive reliance on foreign oil and the destabilizing effects of a changing climate,” Chu said in a Sept. 16 letter to NPC Chairman Claiborne P. Deming, who also is chairman of Murphy Oil Corp.

All energy uses and supply sources must be reexamined in order to enable the transition toward a lower carbon, more sustainable energy mix. Transitions in the energy sector will require the replacement of vehicles, more efficient buildings and industrial facilities, and large-scale deployment of new forms of energy,” the secretary continued.

For the future transportation fuels study, he asked the council to analyze US auto, truck, air, rail, and waterborne transport fuels prospects through 2030. “The study should address fuel demand, source, manufacturing, distribution, and infrastructure,” he indicated. …

For the North American resource development study, he asked NPC to reassess the production supply chain and infrastructure potential, and the contribution that gas can make in a transition to a lower-carbon fuel mix. [It sounds like he’s been reading Vladimir. – ed.]

“Your study should describe the operating practices and technologies that will be used to minimize environmental impacts, and also describe the role of technology in expanding accessible resources,” Chu said. “Of particular interest is the council’s advice on policy options that would allow prudent development of North American natural gas and oil resources consistent with government objectives of environmental protection, economic growth, and national security.”

[emphasis added]

NPR has noticed, too. They’re running a three-part series on natural gas:

Rediscovering Natural Gas By Hitting Rock Bottom (Sept 22)

Who’s Looking At Natural Gas Now? Big Oil (Sept 23)

With Little Clout, Natural Gas Lobby Strikes Out (Sept 24)