My understanding is that natural gas is a really promising candidate as a bridge fuel (a cleaner energy source between the coal/oil economy and whatever comes next), for all the reasons Steve Pearlstein lays out here. But nuclear energy attracts all the political attention. Why is that? Is it just because nuclear energy has traditionally been opposed by liberals and so it's become an article of faith among conservatives? Does nuclear energy have a more-organized or better-funded industry backing it?
I'll look at a few factors that may play a role in this below.
Ezra wonders if nuclear energy has a more-organized or better-funded industry backing it. I don't have data handy for the entire industries, but the two charts below provide some anecdotal evidence to back-up Ezra's assumption.
While natural gas lobbying by the primary industry association has more of an upward trajectory in recent years, the Nuclear Energy Institute still spends about twice as much annually.
On the other hand, few pockets are as deep as those of T. Boone Pickens, who has spent around $60 million in the past 18 months touting the benefits of natural gas vehicles.
On balance, I don't think the lobbying/backing of these respective industries plays a key role here. Some of the reasons below are more compelling.
EmissionsThe chart below shows how many grams of CO2 are emitted per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. As you can see, while burning natural gas is significantly cleaner than burning coal and marginally cleaner than burning oil, it is much more greenhouse-gas intensive than both renewable sources and nuclear. Some life cycle-analyses boost the emissions associated with a nuclear plant due to construction of the plant, but natural gas plants still emit significantly more global warming pollution per kilowatt-hour.
Fear of Another Cartel
Russia, Iran and Qatar have about 55% of the world's known natural gas reserves. They are planning to create a cartel for natural gas, much like OPEC. Russia has already shown how far they are willing to go to manipulate prices. Natural gas proponents in the United States like to point to the fact that natural gas is, for the most part, not a fungible commodity. This is true because compressed natural gas is very difficult and expensive to transport, especially over long distances. But this is only true for compressed natural gas. The rapidly growing market for liquified natural gas, which can be transported relatively inexpensively, changes the equation quite a bit.
The chart below shows that domestic natural gas production peaked in the early 1970s, further complicating matters.
Water Contamination Concerns
The Natural Gas the United States does have is largely locked up in shale formations like the Marcellus Shale in the Northeast and the Barnett Shale in the South. Hydraulic fracturing, the process for extracting usable gas from shale formations, is known to contaminate water supplies. The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee is currently probing the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, and action is being taken on the local level as well.
Natural gas combustion also produces nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog and acid rain.
Americans Don't Like the Industry
The natural gas industry in the United States is nearly identical to the oil industry. As of 2006, the top three oil producers were also the top three natural gas producers: ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Chevron. My hunch is that the American public don't have much interest in increasing their dependence on some of the most profitable and hated companies on the planet.
The price of natural gas is highly volatile (PDF), often increasing or decreasing 200% of more year-over-year. Maintaining low energy prices is important to American consumers and businesses, but price volatility is also a huge concern. Not knowing how much a household or business can expect to spend on energy in a given year or month can make both saving and investing extremely difficult.
As the chart below shows, natural gas prices can swing radically due to hurricanes, hot weather, cold weather or a number of other factors:
With all of this said, I am by no means advocating investments in nuclear energy. Neither of the electricity sources discussed in this post is especially sustainable, and I feel strongly that public investments made in either would be better spent on wind, solar, geothermal, advanced biofuels and basic energy research.