Harvard Study Blows Apart Obama's Case for Natural Gas

Moving away from natural gas isn't just smart science, it's good politics, too. The under-reported story is that Obama's embrace of gas fracking is helping to line the pockets of his political enemies.
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Democrats like to label the GOP the "anti-science party" - but, well, you know what they say about people who live in glass houses. In his last two State of the Union addresses, President Obama gave natural gas his full throated endorsement, and his party has followed suit. Now, a new study from researchers at Harvard has found that methane concentrations in the atmosphere are higher than thought. Obama's embrace of natural gas, it now appears, is actually an anti-science position that the president must reverse if he is serious about tackling the climate crisis. The president's "all of the above" energy strategy has been revealed for what it is: A naked attempt to please everyone (except the physics and chemistry of the planet) and a failed attempt to create a shield against the GOP's claims that Obama is against the exploitation of fossil fuels.

The Harvard study, "Anthropogenic Emissions of Methane in the United States," found that greenhouse gas emissions from "fossil fuel extraction and processing (i.e., oil and/or natural gas) are likely a factor of two or greater than cited in existing studies." In regards to methane, and this is key, the researchers found that "fossil fuel extraction and processing could be 4.9 +/- 2.6 times larger than in EDGAR, the most comprehensive global methane inventory."

The great promise of gas was that it could replace coal and reduce GHG emissions, but only if methane didn't leak into the atmosphere during drilling or transport, and only if natural gas didn't crowd out renewable energy development. We've long known that gas is only better than coal if it leaks at a rate of less than 2.7 times during production. The study makes it clear that gas wells are leaking at least that much.

The study comes as California Governor Jerry Brown and Obama consider new rules for fracking. Both say they are committed to doing their part on climate change while making full use of our gas reserves, buried deep underground in places like Monterey, California and western Pennsylvania. The Harvard study shows they can't love gas while trying to claim the mantle of climate champions.

In California's case, increased use of natural gas is actually increasing emissions.

Last year power plant releases in California rose 35 percent, to 41.6 million metric tons, according to the Air Resources Board. Combined with lower electricity yields from hydro power and other factors, that resulted in a 2 percent increase in emissions. Some say that increased gas use goes well with renewables growth in the Golden State because the intermittent nature of wind and solar needs to work with natural gas to provide reliable power. But national trends tell a different story, with utilities taking the cheaper route of natural gas conversions over long-term investments in zero carbon renewable energy.

Moving away from natural gas isn't just smart science, it's good politics, too. The under-reported story is that Obama's embrace of gas fracking is helping to line the pockets of his political enemies. Eighty-eight percent of the oil and gas industry's political donations to federal candidates go to Republicans. The Koch brothers, for instance, steered more than $200 million into the 2012 election to defeat Obama. They stand to make big bucks on the expansion of fracking and other fossil fuel projects, like the Keystone XL pipeline, if Obama gives them the green light. Even if you ignore the climate implications of fracking, which no rational person should, it's hard to look past the political folly of aiding your political opponents who, let's not forget, are working overtime to stop climate legislation and are up to other nasty things like union busting.

Obama's final rules on gas extraction on public lands are expected next year. Governor Brown is looking at his options now, too. Both would be wise to look at the Harvard study with great care and to take the only sensible option available: leave the gas in the ground.

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