Barack Obama: Climate Realist

Bill Scher

“Climate change is a fact,” said President Obama at the State of the Union address Tuesday. While that was directly lobbed at climate deniers, it was also implicitly aimed at those environmentalists who have been critical of his support for natural gas.

Obama didn’t lead his energy remarks with his plans to cap carbon emissions from power plants by Environmental Protection Agency regulation. Instead, he began by saying, “America is closer to energy independence than we’ve been in decades. One of the reasons why is natural gas – if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.”

This is a nod to what has the most political juice in swing states where Democrats face tough re-election campaigns this year — producing American energy beats regulation pollution. But is this a politically crafty move to save the climate or a surrender?

After the speech, the Sierra Club blasted Obama’s natural gas stance: “…natural gas is a bridge to nowhere. If we are truly serious about fighting the climate crisis, we must look beyond an ‘all of the above’ energy policy and replace dirty fuels with clean energy.”

This comes on the heels of a Politico op-ed coauthored by 350.org’s Bill McKibben that criticized White House support for natural gas, arguing “this gas needs to stay in the ground” because the methane pollution involved makes it “essentially just coal by another name.”

But the issue of natural gas methane pollution and how well it can be managed is not settled, undercutting flat assertions. For example, a National Academy of Sciences report from September found low rates of methane leakage at nearly 500 natural gas wells, though some noted the study didn’t assess every point in the process where methane can leak.

In turn, both President Obama and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz see natural gas a “bridge fuel” that helps us reduce coal use while we ramp up renewable fuels, but with challenges to research further and address.

Obama recently told The New Yorker, “If it’s not done correctly, the methane emissions are profound … But, if we can get that right, then for us to see natural gas supplant coal around the world the same way it’s happening here in the United States, that’s a net plus.”

Moniz notes that natural gas won’t be useful in the long run without developing cost-effective carbon capture technology. He also said “we need more data” about methane emissions and is part of a White House interagency group to develop a methane strategy. But he considers CO2 to be the primary concern because methane doesn’t last in the atmosphere as long: “If we can clamp down, measure . . . reduce those methane emissions, a lot of that will, in fact, go away in a one or two decades time scale.”

Obama and Moniz are approaching the matter as climate realists: There’s a lot of natural gas out there. Most of it is on private land and not regulated by the federal government, so it’s going to get tapped. It’s helping us cut carbon without causing energy price shocks. Let’s maximize it for our short-term advantage while trying to solve the potential long-term problems.

McKibben and the Sierra Club are approaching the matter as climate purists. Let’s not take any chances and keep every bit of greenhouse gas pollution as possible in the ground.

Obviously, if we could do things the purist way, the climate would surely be protected. But even if that was remotely feasible given the makeup of Congress today, the economic disruption involved would just as surely cause a political backlash that would quickly install many climate deniers into power who would waste no time tearing up the ground. (Don’t believe me? I give you Australia.)

And the recent evidence is the bridge strategy is working. The EPA has said our carbon emissions are down in part because of the shift from coal to natural gas.

As President Obama said, “Climate change is a fact.” The clock is ticking. We don’t have time for perfection. We need to buy time wherever we can find time.

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