Yin and yang – building consensus on natural gas

Happy New Year! May this year bring alternative energy advocates and environmentalists closer together with respect to the use and indeed the potential for the environmental misuse of natural gas. If both realize the yin and yang of their debate over fracking, a real dialogue is possible.

Opposite or contrary forces are interdependent, the yin and the yang; they are not good or evil. Nonpartisan, non-ideological efforts to identify and solve possible fracking issues concerning ground water pollution, air quality and GHG emissions, and, yes, even seismic problems, are critical to environmental groups before they come to the table. Willingness to listen and consider the economic, environmental and security benefits of natural gas by environmentalists are important to alternative energy groups to begin and sustain a dialogue over reasonable statutory and regulatory changes to open up the transportation fuel market.

Recently, I noticed that the United Kingdom had lifted restrictions on fracking, giving the green light to drilling that could produce billions of pounds of natural gas. Climate and energy secretary Ed Davey indicated that “shale gas could contribute significantly to our energy security and reduce imports of gas as we move to a low-carbon economy. It could substitute for imports, which are increasing as North Sea gas is decreasing.” He went on to indicate that companies drilling wells would be subject to a “traffic light system,” meaning tough inspection and regulation. Any chemicals used in fracking would have to be approved by the Environmental Agency while the Health and Safety Executive will also be involved in vetting operations. Sounds as my British friends tell me a tough slog.

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The secretary’s announcement was not met with universal applause. Industry, understandably, liked it, but some were skeptical about large-scale developments, given density of population. Most hoped that the “traffic light system” would be reasonable. Some environmental groups, understandably, expressed significant worry. Chris Shearlock, sustainable development manager at The Co-operative Group in the U.K., indicated that, “We’re concerned U.K. regulation has yet to catch up with shale gas…shale gas extraction risks derailing the government’s GHG reduction targets…the U.K. should concentrate on renewable technologies.”

Again, the enemy of the good seems to be the perfect. Natural gas has helped to significantly lower GHG emissions among power plants in the U.S. If it and its derivative, methanol, are able (because of regulatory changes) to provide alternative transitional transportation fuels, their GHG effect will be even higher and their economic impact in creating jobs and improving security will be apparent.

Regrettably, renewables, at least in the near future – probably up to 10 years, will be unable to provide much power for power plants and to substitute for gasoline in the transportation fuel market. Some alternative fuels have also generated environmental group resistance in the U.S. For example, wind turbines and solar energy technology have been criticized for requiring development in sensitive environmental areas. A “not in my environmental backyard” attitude has evolved and is visible in the media and in communities across the U.S.

Let me go back to the yang in yin and yang. I believe that President Obama will encompass the increased use of natural gas, including its use as a transportation fuel, and will support research in and the development of renewable energy. Because of increased recognition of the benefits of natural gas for the nation, a dialogue concerning fracking problems and solutions already has been initiated in the U.S., most visibly, by the group funded by Mayor Bloomberg and developer George Mitchell from Texas. It involves states, environmental and alternative energy advocates. Its mandate is to continue and produce solutions. It should succeed, if ideology does not get in the way. “Let every sluice of knowledge be opened and set a flowing” (borrowed from former President, and wise man, John Adams, “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law”).