Sustained Outrage

There’s an interesting new report out from the Post-Carbon Institute about the role natural gas might — or might not — play in America’s future energy supply.

In a forward to the report, Richard Heinberg discusses three central assumptions about natural gas that he says must now be reconsidered:

— Assumption 1: That, thanks to new techniques for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling of shale, we have sufficient natural gas resources to supply the needs of our country for the next 100 years.

— Assumption 2: That the price of natural gas, which has historically been volatile, will remain consistently low for decades to come.

— Assumption 3: That natural gas is much cleaner and sfer than other fossil fuels, from the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions and public health.

He goes on:

Based on these assumptions, national energy officials at the Energy Information Administration (EIA) foresee a major expansion of natural gas in the coming decades. President Obama touted natural gas as a cornerstone of his Administration’s “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future” and endorsed plans for converting a sizable portion of the vehicle fleet to run on natural gas. Some environmental groups, rightfully concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions of coal, have called for large-scale replacement of coal-fired power plants with those that burn natural gas, despite increasing concern over the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

As this report details, all of these assumptions and recommendations need to be re-thought. What emerges from the data is a very different assessment.

It goes on:

With mounting evidence of the environmental and human health risks of shale gas production, environmental groups are rightfully questioning the “cleanliness” of shale gas. But if these groups focus their arguments only on the contamination of ground water supplies of shale gas without at the same time questioning the economics of shale gas drilling, they will have helped set up conditions for a political battle that could undermine their own influence and credibility. Political interests traditionally funded by the oil and gas industries will once again claim that environmentalism is the only thing standing between Americans and energy security. And if environmentalists are successful in enacting regulations to minimize the risks of water contamination without clarity about the full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of natural gas, they may inadvertently exacerbate the very crisis they are trying to address.

And:

It is past time for policy makers to get serious about the most important strategy we can and must adopt in order to succeed in this new era—energy conservation. Reducing demand for energy and using energy more efficiently are the cheapest and most effective ways of cutting carbon emissions, enhancing energy security, and providing a stable basis for economic planning.

Unfortunately, energy supply limits and demand reduction do not support robust economic growth. This is probably the main reason why policy makers and many energy analysts and environmentalists shy away from conveying the real dimensions of our predicament. However understandable this response may be from a political perspective, it is one that only compromises our prospects as a nation and a species. There is much we can do to ensure a secure social and natural environment in a lower-energy context, but we are unlikely to take the needed steps if we are laboring under fundamentally mistaken assumptions about the amounts of energy we can realistically access, and the costs of making that energy available.

Read the full report here.