Drill Baby, Drill: Environmentalists Conflicted Over Natural Gas

Be careful what you wish for. Now that environmental concerns are getting attention at the highest levels, new fractures are opening up within the “movement” — if it can still be called that — over nuclear power, carbon trading, and now natural gas.

When Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke this fall at Solar Power International, he railed against King Coal and the oil industry, but urged the expansion of natural gas power plants nationwide, and touted the fossil fuel as a friend of solar power. Besides the Natural Resources Defense Council, which Kennedy heads, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund also are in favor of expanded use of natty gas.

But now the NRDC is modulating its support of gas, calling for the regulation of drilling in New York State due to environmental concerns. And the Sierra Club’s national leadership is locked in an internecine battle with local chapters in West Virginia and New York, who are opposing drilling, the Wall Street Journal reports.

So why the controversy?

Bridge Fuel or Bridge to Nowhere?

It stems from a “rediscovery” of natural gas as a potential “bridge fuel” to an all-renewable energy future.

The fossil fuel’s new-found popularity has two sources: one, natural gas emits half the CO2 of coal when burned to generate electricity. That’s always been true, but what hasn’t is reason number two: because of new technology called “hydraulic fracturing,” estimates of the supply of natural gas in the United States have gone up by 83%. Proponents like Kennedy see it as a “natural” bridge fuel between coal and an all-renewable energy future. Cleaner than coal, and now just as abundant.

But there’s a catch: it turns out hydraulic fracturing, which has brought about this revolution in U.S. production, has its own environmental costs.

The process, which has allowed companies to extract previously unobtainable pockets of gas from deep shale formations, can potentially pollute ground water, according to some environmentalists. The New York Times published a high-profile investigation into the controversy, “Dark Side of Natural Gas Boom,” this month, which highlighted those claims.

Chesapeake Energy, one of the nation’s largest producers of natural gas, calls the pollution issue “our biggest challenge.”

“New Natural Gas” or Old Corporate Opportunism?

The industry, sensing an opportunity to step out from under the dirty shadow of coal and oil, has begun a massive PR campaign, “America’s New Natural Gas,” with shiny graphics and an ethnically diverse cast of pitch-people touting the fossil fuel.

For your typical environmentalist, hardened by decades of battles with big energy companies, such a glossy repackaging is likely to set alarm bells ringing.

Greenpeace, the grande dame of the environmental movement, has “no official policy on natural gas,” according to Media Officer Daniel J. Kessler. “It’s true, of course, that NG burns much cleaner than coal, but at a time when we need to be transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables, it’s probably not a good idea to invest too much in natural gas.”

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.