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Not long ago, environmental groups were heralding natural gas as a “bridge fuel to a more climate-friendly energy supply.” Today, New York “progressives” are leading the charge to demonize it as a “bridge to nowhere” — producing “water contamination, air pollution, global warming and fractured communities.” Why the flip-flop?
The greens thought wind and solar would become competitive as fossil-fuel supplies dried up. But those alternatives proved unrealistic — even as natural gas has become plentiful, thanks to dramatic advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The developments made a shambles of the green dream. So the activists are aggressively promoting the view that the natural-gas industry is sacrificing the environment for short-term corporate profits.
One key distortion: that shale gas is dirtier than coal. Ground zero for that belief is at Cornell University, home to activist Professor Robert Howarth and the Park Foundation, the national funding center for anti-natural-gas research and campaigning.
Park has poured more than $6 million over the last two years into community protest groups Upstate and anti-shale-gas lobbying by Mother Jones magazine, the Environmental Working Group and more than a dozen other high-profile advocacy groups. It funded the totem of the movement, Gasland, the engaging but scientifically questionable documentary that made the rounds at Sundance and Cannes.
Howarth and his wife, lab partner Roxanne Marino, are longtime anti-fracking activists. He told me that the foundation recruited him two years ago to fund a study “proving” shale gas was dirty. Last April, the marine-ecosystems expert with no background in gas-related geology co-authored a paper claiming shale generates more greenhouse emissions than coal or oil.
It would be difficult to overstate the article’s influence, ballyhooed by The New York Times and debated in the British parliament and the European Union.
Howarth’s colleagues at Cornell (with actual expertise in this subject) as well as liberal experts at the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Council on Foreign Relations and Environmental Defense Fund panned the article.
“If wells are constructed right and operated right, hydraulic fracturing will not cause a problem, says EDF senior policy adviser Scott Anderson.
“Natural gas is no longer the ‘bridge’ to a low-cost, low-environmental impact, job-creating future — it is the future.” –Jon EntineBut their comments got little play. Large swaths of the media, treating Howarth like a rock star, subsequently ignored a University of Maryland peer-reviewed response and a Carnegie Mellon University report, partly funded by the Sierra Club, that endorsed conclusions by the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory supporting the relative merits of shale gas.
Other environmental scares are equally disingenuous. The vast majority of gas drilling, for example, occurs below water tables so aquifers aren’t affected.
With so much on the line, the industry is eagerly partnering with government on tighter regulations. Chesapeake Energy has spent more than $90 million to repair 160 miles of Pennsylvania state roads damaged by the company’s trucks. The state has gotten industry cooperation to increase permitting fees to hire field inspectors. New York is poised to do likewise.
Those in New York lining up against natural gas may think they can trump balanced science, but misleading “independent” research can’t change the facts on the ground. Over the last five years, alternative-energy prices have held steady, crude has jumped 50 percent, coal is up 23 percent — while gas is down 75 percent.
Meanwhile, shale’s long-term benefits for New York are already evident in the area around Elmira — where the airport is booming, hotels are at capacity and retailers report 60 percent growth, thanks to the surge of shale drilling activity in nearby Pennsylvania. Fracking there has created 100,000 jobs in the last year alone, with an average wage of nearly $70,000. The crumbs spilling over into nearby Chemung County are but a taste of what the shale gas boom could offer New York.
Natural gas is no longer the “bridge” to a low-cost, low-environmental impact, job-creating future — it is the future.
Unless New York’s “progressives” kill it.
Jon Entine is a visiting scholar at AEI.
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