From the Right: Hot Air about Gas

Trust the chairman of the House Resources Committee, Richard Pombo, to seize upon consumer anxiety and twist it to his own anti-environmental ends. There are countless examples of this, but in the most recent incident he”s capitalizing shamelessly on the growing natural gas shortage.

The 56 million Americans who heat their homes with gas are “shocked each month when they open their bills,” he says. And why are prices so high? Why, environmental regulations that protect public land from gas exploration, of course! Citing a Department of Energy study, Pombo concludes, “Report after report shows that while our policies encourage the use of clean-burning natural gas, our regulations preclude us from producing more of it. This is the same recipe for disaster that has led to our dangerous dependence on foreign sources of oil, even though we have large amounts available at home.”

Pombo’s reference there is to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which he seems to think will solve all of our energy needs. Let”s dispel that particular myth right away. As environmentalists have tirelessly pointed out, the Arctic refuge would provide a meager supply of oil, and it would not come on line for a decade. According to the 1998 U.S. Geological Survey study, the mean estimate of economically recoverable oil from the Arctic refuge is 3.2 to 5.2 billion barrels. This is equivalent to the amount of oil the U.S. consumes in about six months.

The conservative Heartland Institute also got into the act, putting all the blame for the gas shortage on radical environmentalists out to foolishly preserve public lands. Heartland”s story quoted Glenn Schleede of Consumer Alert as saying in congressional testimony, “Perhaps the most important action is to remove unnecessary restrictions on access to public lands and federally submerged lands for gas exploration and development.” Schleede doubles as a wind energy opponent. Then-Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham seconded Schleede”s comments, complaining that “environmental restrictions have rendered off-limits nearly half of the huge natural gas reserves that lie beneath federal lands.”

But beyond all the hand-wringing about green perfidy, it’s plain that we could ease the natural gas crisis and lower the price for consumers with a federally directed conservation program. But this is never the solution for the Bush administration and its allies, obsessed as they are with the short-term non-solution of drilling on public lands. The simple fact, however, is that public lands are not the real issue in the natural gas crisis, and exploiting them wouldn’t change a thing (though it would make some major Republican donors very happy).

Let”s step back a bit, with some basic facts courtesy of Atmos Energy. Natural gas is a fossil fuel found deep in underground reservoirs formed by porous rock. It was created over millions of years through pressure and heat, as plants and sea animals very slowly turned into a captured gas (and into oil, too). It was first used by the ancient Greeks and Persians, who built temples around “eternal flames” of this flammable gas from the earth. The Chinese first piped natural gas 2,500 years ago (through bamboo “pipes”). The first U.S. well was dug in Fredonia, New York by William Hart in 1821, but the gas was being used to illuminate the streets of Baltimore as early as 1816. By 1900, 17 states had discovered natural gas deposits.

Today, we have 1.3 million miles of natural gas pipes, and there is gas service in all 50 states. One fourth of total energy in the U.S. is provided by natural gas, and we consume 23 trillion cubic feet a year (85 percent of it from domestic supplies). The U.S. has 3.2 percent of the planet”s natural gas reserves, but it is the second-largest supplier after Russia. The biggest gas supplies are in Alaska, Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Our main import partners are Canada and Mexico.

The problem is that natural gas demand is growing, and is predicted to reach 35 quadrillion Btus (quads) by 2020. Industry, the biggest gas consumer, will increase its demand from 10 quads in 1998 to an estimated 13 quads by 2020. The federal Energy Information Administration projects that demand overall will increase by 50 percent over the next two years. It”s not surprising. Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel (particularly when it comes to sulfur dioxide, an acid rain aggravator), and it”s a far better option for home heating than coal or oil.

Natural gas is used to heat six out of 10 homes. It has seen growing use in power plants, because of its clean-burning properties (and because it produces electricity 20 percent more efficiently than a coal plant). About 30,000 cars have also been modified to run on natural gas.

We have an approximately 50-year supply of natural gas if we continue to use it at the same rate as today (not likely), and a 200-year supply if we exploit some of the harder-to-reach supplies. OK, let”s stop all the hysteria and look at solutions here. According to Steve Andrews, an energy consultant and natural gas specialist, new drilling is not the answer, because “most North American gas fields are now yielding diminishing returns, and the ability to increase drilling is constrained by limited rig ability and lack of skilled labor. The richest, most accessible fields have already been drilled.”

Instead of ending environmental restrictions on drilling, many experts say we could ease demand by looking at renewables and energy conservation. “We now have hard data showing a direct relationship between more renewables and lower power bills,” says Rick Gilliam, a senior energy policy advisor at Western Resource Advocates (WRA). “Xcel calculates that the wind farm planned near Lamar [Colorado] will save consumers $4.6 million in a single year.”

A white paper by Western Resource Advocates concludes, “The easiest way to protect consumers from high gas prices is to reduce gas demand through investments in efficiency and renewable energy. Reducing natural gas use in our homes, businesses and power plants is the best way to lower gas bills—this winter and for years to come.”

OK, now here”s the kicker. Again, from the WRA report: “Streamlining environmental reviews and increasing access to federal natural gas resources on public land in the Rockies would increase supplies by less than one percent [emphasis added], provide no immediate price relief, and save the average U.S. household about $5 a year by 2020.” WRA”s source for this information is the federal U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As WRA points out, we are learning to use our gas supplies more efficiently. In the early 1970s, we used five trillion cubic feet of gas to meet the needs of 35 million homes. By 2002, we were using the same five trillion cubic feet to supply 58 million homes. “Improvements in energy efficiency allowed this to happen,” the report says, “more insulation to our walls and attics, better windows, more efficient furnaces and water heaters, showerheads and faucets that waste less water and other home improvements.”

Conserving gas helps reduce gas use and, of crucial concern to consumers, gas bills. Natural gas utilities in nine states sponsor gas conservation programs for consumers, including rebates on energy-efficient furnaces and water heaters, and subsidies on programmable thermostats and other retrofits.

I could write a whole other column on how renewables like solar and wind are now becoming cost-competitive with oil, coal and natural gas. In fact, I already did just such a story about wind power.

So let”s not listen to the chicken littles on the Resource Committee, or the think-tankers sitting in their over-heated offices in Washington. There are solutions to our natural gas crisis that do not include despoiling what remains of our public lands.


  • WRA’s white paper on natural gas conservation can be downloaded here.