Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Commentary on natural gas

I'm in favor of fracking (hydraulic fracturing to retrieve natural gas). I want greater use of natural gas as an alternative to oil and coal. I think "energy independence," better described as "energy security," is an important goal for our nation. Thus I largely agree with this Commentary article: "Energy Independence and Its Enemies," by Abby W. Schachter. And yet....

It has some problems. First there's some sloppy writing and/or editing at the outset:
Fracking makes possible the extraction of oil—natural gas in particular—from shale rock formations thousands of feet underground.
 If that said "fossil fuels—natural gas in particular," it's be just fine. But "natural gas" is not a type of "oil" by any reasonable definition. Now let's get deeper into the article's substance, when Schachter discusses why there isn't bipartisan enthusiasm for fracking:
The answer was recently made clear by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she said the world is suffering from a “climate crisis.” For those, like Clinton, who believe the most pressing issue facing our society is climate change, and that humans are the ones causing the problem, any effort that results in increased consumption of fossil fuels such as natural gas is anathema. Proponents of this view have been working tirelessly to move the United States toward what they call a cleaner energy future by reducing our consumption of and reliance on energies that are harmful to the environment, namely, “dirty” carbon-producing coal and oil.
Read this again: "For those, like Clinton, who believe the most pressing issue facing our society is climate change, and that humans are the ones causing the problem...." Note the casual combination of a debatable position ("the most pressing issue facing our society is climate change") with a statement that's debated only through sheer perverseness ("and that humans are the ones causing the problem"). Whether Hillary Clinton or Pres. Obama actually think climate change is "the most pressing issue" is itself questionable (if that were the administration's view, we'd probably have a controversial climate law now instead of a controversial healthcare law). But the administration's fecklessness in dealing with climate change gets overlooked as the article retreats into hand-waving skepticism that humans have anything to do with the problem. Then there's this:
The opposition to fracking stems from the belief that the method of extracting natural gas from shale formations pollutes the environment and that burning natural gas for energy isn’t as “clean” as using solar or wind power. Clean-energy proponents argue that we should be moving as fast as possible to using nonpolluting, non-carbon-producing energy sources rather than transitioning to a less-dirty alternative to coal and oil.
That natural gas isn't as clean as solar or wind is not just a belief but a fact (even taking into account that solar and wind do have environmental impacts ranging from material disposal to bird killings). Unlike the clean-energy proponents Schachter decries, I think the best is the enemy of the good, and that indeed we should be ramping up natural gas as a less-dirty alternative to coal and oil (while working on developing yet-cleaner energy sources as well). But unlike the conservatives Schachter here speaks to and for, I want more use of natural gas not just because it's an alternative to foreign oil but also because it's a way to restrain carbon emissions and reduce climate risks. The argument for natural gas is weakened, not strengthened, by excluding the climate from things worth considering.

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