Natural gas development: our future or our folly?

Natural gas development: our future or our folly?Natural gas is touted as a transitional fuel to a carbon-free future. And due to the recent development of shale gas technology, the US now has a lot of it. Natural gas is presented as a clean replacement for coal and as a solution to decrease carbon dioxide emissions. But will replacing one fossil fuel with another really address climate change?

The Marcellus shale gas formation, which underlays southern New York and most of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, is the second largest known gas reserve in the world. And the Utica formation below the Marcellus shale may even be larger. Based on these reserves, natural gas companies in Pennsylvania are anticipating a 200-year horizon for gas development. Such a horizon would ensure that the industry would remain a potent economic generator in this overwhelmingly rural area for a long time.

But what will the region – and the earth as a whole – look like 200 years from now if all this gas is extracted and burned? One thing is certain: a 200-year gas supply is an awfully long bridge fuel. The danger is that this readily available, cheap gas will makes us complacent in dealing with the real effects of climate change.

And climate change is happening. Recent research indicates that recent extreme weather events are attributable to global warming. Forward-looking companies are quietly developing strategies to adapt to the expected effects of a warmer planet. For example, the energy company Entergy is working with America's WETLAND Foundation to establish plans to deal with rising sea levels in the Mississippi delta region. Val Marmillion, managing director of America's WETLAND Foundation, notes that:

We're in the reality, and not into the debate. We are not treating climate or sea level rise as a political issue.

Without doubt, natural gas is cleaner than coal. But saying it is cleaner than coal really isn’t saying much; gas may be less than 25% cleaner according to a recent Propublica report. The availability and economic development opportunity of natural gas can’t be allowed to distract us from the real threat of climate change.