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.
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