Mais Oui

Rediscovering Natural Gas

by Cherry Fisher May

With oil execs and NPR on the same page, natural gas is getting the attention it deserves

In September when National Public Radio announced a series of reports titled “Rediscovering Natural Gas by Hitting Rock Bottom,” it got my attention. NPR’s position in the news business is called liberal by some (read detractors) and progressive by others, but the title sounded surprisingly friendly to an energy source that is often lumped together with its fossil fuel cousins — oil and coal — as a loathsome triumvirate. In the three-day series, respected newsman Tom Gjelten essentially made the argument that it’s time for natural gas to be taken seriously as a bridge fuel to a new age filled with renewable energy resources in some yet-to-be determined future. It’s great ammunition for people like Louisiana’s Don Briggs, Texas’ T. Boone Pickens and others who are front and center in the political debate on this issue.
Throughout the series, both the reporter and his sources reminded listeners of the desirable qualities of natural gas, calling it clean, abundant, cheap and important to national security because of the growing domestic reserves that will decrease dependence on foreign oil. You’d have thought Lafayette oilman Paul Hilliard was writing the script.

Of course, the new recovery technique of water fracturing — or fracing — of shale is what pulled natural gas off the bench and put it back in the game. The fracing process is a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals, including benzene, injected into shale a mile underground. Gjelten includes reports of environmental concerns about drinking water contamination. He also cites tests that are inconclusive and unconvincing on this point, along with efforts to add federal oversight as a safeguard and proactive precautionary measures that the industry has taken upon itself to protect water resources. Additionally, he quotes environmentalists like Christopher Flaven, president of The World Watch Institute, who clearly embraces natural gas as a transition fuel.

The final installment in Gjelten’s series addresses the politics of the situation, which can essentially be summarized in two words: size matters. The natural gas industry is tiny when compared to well-entrenched, politically powerful oil, coal and electrical utility companies (coal’s biggest customers). According to his report, the natural gas lobby spent $310,000 in the first half of 2009. The combined budget for competing interests in that same period was $78 million, which explains why they fared so well in the climate change bill that passed the House in June. The bill included no incentives for natural gas.
That’s when the picture changed. Earlier this year, America’s Natural Gas Alliance was formed among industry players. More recently in the Senate, a natural gas caucus emerged, hoping to re-tilt the playing field away from the long-established coal caucus. In January, Lafayette businessman Bill Fenstermaker will use his tenure as king of Washington, D.C., Mardi Gras in an effort to expand that group. He’s working with Congressman Charles Boustany to host a roundtable where congressmen and senators from states that are new producers can add their political clout to the burgeoning coalition.
Fenstermaker says it’s time to make the case in Washington for a fuel that is “greener than green.” That’s also the essence of the NPR report. Did you ever think you’d see those two sources agree? Quick — someone light a match.