Republican politicians and talking heads including W. Mitt Romney have made a big deal lately of the Obama administration’s supposed “war on coal.” It’s a phrase that no doubt tests well with blue-collar focus groups in the states needed to win the election, and the evidence seems to match the attack line: across the United States, the fires of coal plants have begun to flicker out. Coal prices have increased substantially over the last several years. The construction of new coal-fired power plants has all but ceased. Part of this is due to the EPA, which has put into place a series of regulations that limit the emissions of mercury, acids, and small particles that come from coal plants and cause hundreds of thousands of cases of asthma in United States every year. But that’s not the whole story. The true culprit of the war on coal is natural gas. Natural gas extraction through high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing—fracking—has revolutionized the American energy industry, lowering both prices and carbon emissions. With the proper safeguards, natural gas extraction can help revitalize stagnant rural communities throughout the nation.
In 2008, Penn State geologist Terry Engelder fired the starting pistol for the natural gas rush when he announced that the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that stretches from Tennessee to within spitting distance of my house in Western New York, contained as much as 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—more than all but the giant gas field below the waters between Iran and Qatar. At the time, the most recent public estimate was two trillion feet. Engelder said at the time that the discovery was a Christmas present for America; it turns out that it was much, much more. In the first quarter of this 2012, carbon emissions in the United States fell to their lowest level since 1983. As natural gas power plants replace those burning coal, these emissions could continue to fall. Natural gas releases half as much carbon into the atmosphere as coal—not to mention fewer carcinogens—and thirty percent less than oil.
Fracking, obviously, has its flaws. In Pennsylvania, the stories of manipulative leases, overbearing corporations, and water contamination have come from a failure of government to step up and play referee. These problems can be addressed by strict testing requirements, proper waste disposal, public disclosure of lease terms, and land use restrictions. Sadly, heavy lobbying efforts including more than three hundred thousand dollars in campaign contributions to Republican Governor Tom Corbett have delayed the implementation of a severance tax on natural gas extraction that would help ensure both that all Pennsylvanians benefit from the windfall beneath their feet and that the state has the money to adequately police the industry. It’s naïve to assume that, in this or any industry, the companies will behave without oversight.
No energy source exists in a vacuum, and none is free of tradeoffs. Coal extraction often requires the removal of entire mountaintops. Nuclear waste remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Hydroelectric blocks the course of rivers—and there aren’t many viable sites left. Solar panels need toxic chemicals like gallium arsenide; batteries use even harsher chemicals. While solar panels and wind power hold significant promise for the future, the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. These technologies need to advance more before they’re cost competitive and capable of meeting the energy needs of the United States. In the meantime, we have more than a century’s supply of extremely cheap, relatively clean natural gas.
Natural gas has a huge advantage besides cost competitiveness and abundance. When we buy fossil fuels—or any product—it represents a transfer of wealth from customer to producer. Europe has no choice but to throw Euros at Russia to keep the gas flowing. Japan sends money to Qatar just to keep the lights on. But in the United States today, urban New Yorkers are transferring wealth to rural Pennsylvanians. San Diegans are sending money to North Dakota. The lights stay cheaply on in our cities and communities are climbing up from their knees in the countryside. Natural gas doesn’t just reduce our impact on the climate. It strengthens our economy, lowers our electric bills, and keeps the flow of money within our own borders. In the years since the recession, the economy has grown by 2.7 million jobs. One million of those were in the energy industry. Fracking has its flaws, but barring a miraculous abandonment of fossil fuels, natural gas is a step in the right direction.