Wyden’s Next Steps For Ensuring That The Shale Gas Expansion Provides Net Benefits


By Gwynne Taraska

Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, announced that he is seeking bipartisan agreement on a number of issues related to the expansion of shale gas production. These include the development of natural gas infrastructure and the control of methane leakage. His announcement came yesterday in a forum hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center on the impact of natural gas on the U.S. economy and geopolitics.

Given that methane is a powerful greenhouse gas –- trapping eighty times as much heat as CO2 over a 20-year timeframe (or more) –- leakage poses a serious threat to the climate and could counteract some of the emissions benefits of substituting natural gas for coal in the generation of electricity. New natural gas plants have emissions benefits compared to new coal plants if the methane leakage rate is below 3.2 percent from well to power plant delivery. Wyden yesterday endorsed a leakage target of 1 percent for future pipelines. “I’m going to look for ways to not just build more pipelines,” Wyden said, “but to build better pipelines.”

Wyden is also proposing that states and the federal government share the regulation of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations. States, he says, should oversee “below ground” fracking activities such as well construction, given that they have intimate knowledge of local geology. The federal government, Wyden says, should oversee “above ground” activities such as the reporting of spills and the disclosure of fracking chemicals. Wyden’s proposal is therefore in sharp contrast to the current draft rule on fracking by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which applies only to public and tribal land and has been criticized for having insufficient disclosure requirements. Wyden has also called for the Department of Energy to engage the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the website FracFocus, which BLM’s current draft rule uses for chemical disclosures, to determine whether it provides adequate information to regulators. People should know whether there are spills or contaminants that affect their communities, Wyden said. “Transparency,” he said, “isn’t something that should stop at the state line.”

Wyden is additionally seeking bipartisan support for facilitating the use of natural gas in the transportation sector as well as clarifying the conditions under which the Department of Energy can revoke or suspend permits to export liquefied natural gas (LNG). “Whether you think exports are good or bad, reasonable people can agree that having clarity on the process involved is crucial,” Wyden said.

Many of Wyden’s proposals are necessary -– although more needs to be done -– to ensure that the U.S. shale gas boom provides a net benefit.

Exports. The clarity that Wyden calls for regarding the license process would be valuable, and further, careful consideration of exports more generally is necessary given that increasing exports could potentially have a number of negative effects on the U.S., including higher natural gas and electricity prices; additional shale gas production and therefore additional fracking, which carries a raft of well known risks such as water pollution and habitat destruction; increased greenhouse gas emissions; and the risk of overbuilding export infrastructure.

Reporting and disclosures. The natural gas boom is a reality – the United States produced 24,041,904 million cubic feet (MMcf) of dry natural gas in 2012 – and it should be managed as safely as possible. Universal federal reporting and disclosure rules would contribute in some measure to the safety of the shale expansion by allowing local residents to gain and act on information about fracking operations in their communities.

Pipelines and leakage control. Natural gas-fired plants produce approximately 50 percent less carbon pollution than coal-fired plants. Natural gas therefore presents a legitimate opportunity to reduce carbon emissions in the near term by displacing coal in the electric power sector. (The EIA and EPA have credited coal-to-natural-gas switching in elec¬tricity generation as being partly responsible for recent declines in CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel combustion.) There must therefore be adequate pipelines in place so existing natural gas-fired plants can be utilized to drive coal from the domestic fuel mix. Leakage control is needed so the emissions saved at combustion from replacing coal are not offset by methane emissions throughout the lifecycle of natural gas.

More than these proposals will be needed to ensure that the natural gas expansion will result in net gains. For example, the Center for American Progress has advocated that the federal government should set minimum guidelines to govern even “below ground” fracking activities, which states could strengthen in accordance with local differences.

In addition, the longer-term climate consequences of natural gas use must be considered. CAP’s recent report shows that natural gas provides short-term benefits for emissions reductions but that increasing reliance on natural gas for electricity generation beyond the 2020s will cause the United States to fail to meet its climate targets, given that the combustion of natural gas produces significant carbon pollution, albeit less than the combustion of coal.

The U.S. therefore must ultimately turn from natural gas to clean energy. This transition could be prompted by adopting a clean energy standard (CES) that requires utilities to generate a percentage of their electricity from renewable energy and efficiency. It also could be prompted by generating revenue from a carbon tax or from a fee levied on the natural gas market to invest in clean energy development and deployment. There is less potential for bipartisan support for these measures than there is for the proposals Wyden presented yesterday. (It should be noted, however, that Wyden’s proposal for federal “above ground” fracking requirements is ambitious and might face robust opposition.) A swift transition to clean energy nevertheless should be promoted if the U.S. is to avoid the climate impacts -– and the economic and human costs –- of overreliance on natural gas.

16 Responses to Wyden’s Next Steps For Ensuring That The Shale Gas Expansion Provides Net Benefits

  1. WIgley says that leakage has to be below 2% to make switching to gas worth it, but I haven’t compared his work to the linked source for 3.2%: Wigley, Tom. 2011. “Coal to gas: the influence of methane leakage.” Climatic Change. vol. 108, no. 3. pp. 601-608. []

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    This headline and story are unworthy of Climate Progress. Either we act to reduce our emissions or we don’t. Sometimes it seems like I’m back on Revkin’s blog.

  3. Turboblocke says:

    If you factor in the costs of climate change, it’s hard to see shale gas giving net benefits under any conditions.

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Precisely. Fracking is a literal dead-end, but it suits the fossil fuel interests perfectly, and the financial interests behind them, the real centre of power in late capitalist pathocracies. Fracking ensures climate destabilisation disaster, because the leakage of methane will be higher than admitted, burning any hydrocarbon at this end-stage is lunacy and because fracking is being used, quite nakedly, as a weapon to delay and deter investment in real, non-carbon renewables. Let’s leave out the ground water pollution and earthquakes, because they’ll mostly be problems for the ragged bands of our survivors (if any) and other species.

  5. Michael Berndtson says:

    I gather Center for American Progress and Environmental Defense Fund have the same clients.

    Shale oil and gas is a hydrocarbon play – just like conventional oil and gas and coal. Sam Simon of Simpsons fame said it best, most environmental NGOs and nonprofits are total BS.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    That’s right, Michael. Green NGO’s are a tax dodge, and they don’t have to detail information about donors- the money could arrive in the form of a foundation pass through, anyway.

    The green organizations are useless. People like us work for free. Maybe that’s why they’re winning.

  7. Dan Miller says:

    I agree that this whole “natural gas will lower emissions” meme is not going to end well. Even the “good guys” (like the author of the piece, President Obama, and many others) spout this nonsense. You can’t reduce emissions by finding and extracting vast new sources of fossil fuels. According to Jim Hansen, we can emit a total of 130 GtC in total for evermore, and we emit about 10 GtC a year. The total reserve of unconventional natural gas is estimated to be 25,000 GtC. Do the math.

  8. BobbyL says:

    “CAP’s recent report shows that natural gas provides short-term benefits for emissions reductions but that increasing reliance on natural gas for electricity generation beyond the 2020s will cause the United States to fail to meet its climate targets.”

    It seems to me that the role of the Center for American Progress should be to argue for stronger targets, not be raising concerns why the US might fail to meet its woefully inadequate targets.

  9. Timothy Hughbanks says:

    Even if climate change weren’t an issue at all, why would we want to be chained to another nonrenewable energy source? Another energy source for which the market can be controlled by the same oligopoly that controls other fossil fuels, a large chunk of our government(s), and as such constitute corrupting sources of political power. Renewable energy is feared by these plutocrats because they fear losing one of the strongest levers with which they extract unreasonable rents from the populace.

    But, of course, climate change is a huge problem and every dollar invested in natural gas extraction is another dollar of sunk costs that will slow down what we need:to invest in renewable energy sources.

  10. Lionel A says:

    Meanwhile in the UK Cuadrilla exploration draws protests at Balcombe UK.

    Here is the report from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering mentioned by Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla.

    Will regulation be fit for purpose? Has it ever been WRT the oil & gas industry.

  11. Joe Romm says:

    We do both!

  12. Michael Berndtson says:

    I do this blog commenting thing for free – won’t work for free.

    I think my second comment got sucked up by the NSA or fell outside the CAP guidelines. Gwynne Taraska is with George Mason University, which is pretty much the policy arm of Koch. Like MIT’s Chemical Engineering Department – named after David H. Koch after his $150 million gift – is the technical and nuts and bolts arm.

    The senator from Oregon is pretty much towing the line established by EDF. Uncool. Very uncool.

  13. Joan Savage says:

    Wydens wants to leave “below ground” regulation up to the states.
    Bad move. Aquifers don’t stop at state lines. Nor do earthquakes.

    We need federal protection. We must repeal the 2005 so-called Halliburton loophole that excludes from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, “the underground injection of natural gas for purposes of storage; and ‘‘(ii) the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.’’

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The question, as ever, is ‘Cui bono’. If the benefits flow to the rich, as ever, then they do not give a flying etc what happens to the proles or to future generations. Privatise the profits and socialise the losses!

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The first big sell-out of Big Green in Australia was Greenpeace, under a certain P.G, who is these days a favourite of the accommodationist wing of environmentalism. One constant of history is the sell-out, from the Left to the more financially rewarding Right. The local Labor Party has a history simply stuffed with ‘rats’ (in the colloquial usage), and Greens often follow a similar trajectory. Those that do not are, naturally, reviled and vilified by the sewer MSM.

  16. Brian Smith says:

    Against the backdrop of a natural gas boom that no think tank has the power to halt, the author is reporting both Wyden’s proposals and CAP’s stand on the issue.(

    CAP supports nat. gas as a bridge fuel but with warnings: nat. gas use must peak by 2030 (called “near term”)saying:
    “We thus consider 2030 to be an absolute outer limit for peak natural-gas use. It is very possibly not near enough to slow the impacts from climate change.”;emissions benefits depend on simultaneous aggressive reductions in coal & oil use; Obama’s targets are weak; the wave of nat. gas investments could significantly divert investments needed for carbon neutral tech.; regulations have to be tight.

    CAP’s position feels more like lipstick on a pig, accepting inadequate initial targets and investing in the 2030 peak gas use concept; but I’m not sure they can do much to steer developments except to get behind much stricter regulation. I hope they do. The pig, meanwhile, cannot be made to go away and everybody is scrambling for policy to control it.

    Wyden, on the other hand wants to promise a full-on infrastructure investment for nat. gas coupled with weak regulation with below ground fracking regs left to states. He opens with compromise.

    Wyden’s plan does little, asks little, and CAP’s statements should be a lot more radical, IMO. I’m with Mulga & Dan, fracking is insane. but the sad reality is it’s going forward. But none of this gets me on board with “most environmental NGOs and nonprofits are total BS.” or “The green organizations are useless.” blanket statements with the inference that donor non-disclosure indicates possible CAP sellout. When you open a can of worms that big (I’ve read The Nation piece on CAP finances), you should show us some of the worms.

    Massive public education is the only thing that can create voter pressure for comprehensive climate policy & action. This is where the greens, including CAP, could do enormous good on a problem that should be getting AT LEAST SOME serious attention in these pages.

Gwynne Taraska is the research director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy and a visiting research associate at the Center for American Progress