Climate battle lines drawn ahead of pope’s visit

If Pope Francis had dropped by our booth at Shale Insight last week, I would have gladly given him a Fuel Freedom water bottle and encouraged him to watch PUMP on Netflix.

He didn’t turn up at the fifth annual natural-gas conference. But some of his supporters did: A few dozen protesters gathered outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center to denounce the gas-extraction method called fracking. Many dressed in papal garb, a nod to Francis’s unprecedented campaign to do something about climate change.

It was also a nod to the impending papal visit next week, when about 1 million people are expected to attend Francis’s address on Independence Mall on Saturday.

The pope’s smiling face was everywhere in Philly: on bus stops, in bars, in storefront windows. There was an official Pope Francis merchandise store, selling shirts and hats and crucifixes and plush dolls and bobbleheads, with proceeds going to the World Meeting of Families. At a Nationals-Phillies game, ushers handed out pope “rookie” cards, with stats on the back.

The pope and natural gas might not seem to belong in the same conversation, but with his visit putting a spotlight on climate change and how much of a burden poorer countries should carry to help forestall it, the role of gas extraction and consumption plays a big part. Opponents say to avoid catastrophe, we need to keep more oil and gas in the ground.

Marcellus shale play

This Marcellus Shale Coalition graphic shows the vastness of the Marcellus formation.

But the attendees at Shale Insight, many of them players in the natural-gas industry (the Marcellus formation is mostly gas, as opposed to other shale “plays” that contain a mix of oil and gas), differ. They note that NG produces less CO2 and other emissions than oil and coal, and that drilling technology is getting safer.

Anyone who stopped by our booth heard our angle: That as long as the Marcellus formation is there, and natural gas prices are so low that it’s barely worth it to bring it up, producers should take a look at a new market opportunity: Turning gas into liquid ethanol to run in the 17 million flex-fuel vehicles in the U.S., including 5 million within 500 miles’ driving distance of Philly. That kind of revolution would spur economic development for a domestically made fuel, as well as achieve the kinds of goals the pope is talking about — reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and smog in urban areas.

Robert M. Bryce, the journalist and author who gave the final speech of the conference on Sept. 17, said the United States is the envy of the world when it comes to quality of life, education and economic opportunity. And much of that is fueled by the shale revolution.

“We have cheap, abundant, reliable energy and the rest of the world, by and large, does not,” he said. “And that gives the U.S. the linchpin advantage over the rest of the world.”

Henry Hub

Henry Hub NG futures prices, per million British Thermal Units.


Opponents, including some Christian leaders, aren’t convinced that fossil fuels are the rising tide that lifts all boats. This week more than 100 faith leaders in Pennsylvania, citing the pope’s efforts, sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf urging him to ban natural-gas development.

David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which organized the two-day conference, defended natural gas, but declined to wage a battle on religious grounds.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I don’t want to get into a battle with the pope, because I’ll lose that fight every day.”

Considering Francis can command an audience of millions, that response is understandable. The real battle over natural gas’s role in climate change, and U.S. energy policy, will resume after Francis leaves.

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