Start treating natural gas like the national treasure it is

Start treating natural gas like the national treasure it is
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The World Gas Conference began in Washington Tuesday, the first time in the International Gas Union’s 85-year history the event will be held in a country that is both the world’s largest gas producer and biggest gas consumer.  This fact alone indicates the centrality of gas to the U.S. energy mix.

Yet, while the American gas boom has been nothing less than an economic, environmental and security bonanza, additional actions are still needed to make sure that gas can help provide for a more sustainable, affordable and secure U.S. energy future.

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In this, the gas industry, Republican and Democratic policymakers, regulators, environmental advocates and the states will all have key roles to play.

 

Most of all, however, it turns out that informing and educating the U.S. general public about the unique benefits of gas may be the most crucial step of all. Increased public backing of gas will be needed to create political support for the series of specific policies required for natural gas to reach its full transformative potential. 

As things stand now, not all Americans appreciate the role that gas has played over the last decade in advancing our energy economy and environmental protection.

Recent data from Edelman in its 18th annual Trust Barometer and U.S. Natural Gas Industry Perceptions follow-up research finds that trust in the U.S. gas industry has actually fallen a precipitous 13 points over the last year.

While the survey finds a small majority of the general public favors gas as an energy source, slightly less than half are favorable toward the natural gas industry. Support among Democrats for natural gas is particularly low compared to other groups, despite the major role of gas in decarbonizing the U.S. electricity sector.  

While Republicans have traditionally been allies of the gas industry, the Trump administration has undertaken two major efforts to subsidize coal at the expense of natural gas. 

Last year, the administration attempted to pressure the independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) into subsidizing coal and nuclear power, falsely claiming the action was needed for grid security. 

But the five-member FERC, including four Trump appointees, unanimously rejected the proposal early this year citing concerns over higher consumer electricity and industry costs. 

Undeterred, the administration has recently ordered Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryThe credible case for Texas and its clean energy solutions Oversight: Trump confidant Tom Barrack pushed for Saudi nuclear plant construction Amazon taps Trump ally to lobby amid Pentagon cloud-computing contract fight MORE to make an unprecedented intervention in electricity markets to prop up coal power plants, again falsely maintaining the effort was needed to protect electricity grid reliability for national security.

The administration is preparing to use an obscure Cold War-era provision intended for war-time emergencies for this purpose. Both gambits are widely seen by energy economists, consumer advocates, manufacturers and the broader business community as an effort to subvert competitive electricity markets that have lowered energy prices for consumers and U.S. manufacturing for decades. 

For their part, some Democrats on the party’s left flank have not embraced natural gas, despite the fact that the gas boom was crucial to lowering U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 12 percent during President Obama’s time in office, when U.S. natural gas production rose 34 percent. 

Legitimate concerns over climate change have emboldened “leave it in the ground” gas prohibitionists, who can be influential with Democrats and even independents.  

Overall, it appears that a combination of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE's coal fixation on the right and far left-wing "gas prohibitionists" may be hurting the public's support for gas.

Of course, the gas industry itself has a major role to play here. It must emphasize to a public rightly concerned about climate change that gas emits only half the carbon dioxide emissions that coal does. 

It must also educate consumers about the unique role gas plays in enabling greater amounts of intermittent wind and solar energy into the electricity grid, due to the ability of gas plants to cycle on and off much more quickly and cheaply than coal or nuclear plants when the sun isn’t shining or wind isn’t blowing.

Yet, many environmental advocates are also legitimately concerned about emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from leaks during natural gas production.

Recent findings by the Environmental Protection Agency and other scientists have found that emissions of methane from U.S. gas operations are higher than previously thought. 

The good news is these leaks of natural gas can be reduced with additional industry maintenance while also using gas more efficiently and increasing public revenue.

The industry must work with the federal government, states and responsible environmental organizations to establish better regulations to cut methane emissions or risk support for gas. 

At the same time, federal and state regulators must do more to bring cheap, lower-emitting gas to consumers who need it. Infrastructure, especially responsibly permitted pipelines, should be expedited where possible. 

Ironically, approving infrastructure has been a problem not just in the Northeast or coastal West, but in key gas-producing states like Texas. 

Finally, the U.S. has a global role to play as a net gas exporter, which can lower greenhouse gas emissions from abroad. Here, too, American gas producers must realize that lowering emissions from U.S. gas represents a distinct competitive advantage over higher-emitting gas from Russia and many other countries. 

One doubts, for example, that most World Cup soccer fans realize the climate change, human rights and security problems related to Russian gas when they see Gazprom ads so prominently displayed during recent games. 

America’s rich natural gas reserves are the envy of the world. An informed American public, with a responsible industry and reasonable regulations, can make sure that gas continues to lower consumer costs and U.S. greenhouse gas emissions too. 

Paul Bledsoe is a strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute and lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy. He was a staff member at the Senate Finance Committee and the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.