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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Natural Gas: The Fuel of the Future?

Air Date: Week of

Alex van Oss reports from Washington on the effort by a new alliance of natural gas companies and some environmentalists to increase the use of natural gas. President Clinton vowed during the campaign to push natural gas as a cleaner, cheaper and more secure energy source than oil and coal.


CURWOOD: There's yet another way that the Clinton Administration may address both the economics and the environmental impact of energy, and that's through boosting the use of natural gas. Recently the natural gas industry, and some environmentalists, have been promoting broader use of natural gas. They claim it's a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil, cut greenhouse emissions and urban smog, and build a bridge to a future non-polluting hydrogen fuel system powered by the sun.

But as Alex Van Oss reports from Washington, the oil and coal industries, and some other environmentalists, say the promise of natural gas is being oversold.

(Sound of van starting)

VAN OSS: This is a natural-gas powered van; you fill it up with a nozzle, just like a big bicycle tire. It's parked at the headquarters of the American Gas Association, whose president, Mike Baly, says that with the new administration in town, he's feeling confident about the future of natural gas.

BALY: President Clinton has four basic legs to his energy stool, his energy table -- renewable energy, conservation, environmentally sound, and natural gas.

VAN OSS: During the campaign, the Clinton/Gore team promised to expand natural gas markets and develop new pipeline systems. They said they'd convert the Federal fleet to natural gas, and use Federal money to research and develop new applications for gas. Perhaps anticipating a new marketing opportunity, gas companies got together with some utilities and renewable energy groups, and joined hands with advisors from the environmental community to form an alliance called the Business Council for a Sustainable Energy Future. Until recently, the council included Thomas McLarty, then an Arkansas gas executive, now President Clinton's chief of staff. And also, says Mike Baly of American Gas Association, the Council recently lost another member to Clinton's cabinet, a loss which may prove to be an overall gain for gas.

BALY: We're very pleased to see the new Secretary of Energy. Hazel O'Leary is a former utility executive who is an expert on demand-side management and the environment and drives a natural-gas vehicle.

VAN OSS: It's not only natural gas companies who're playing up their product, but also a number of environmental groups not usually known for supporting non-renewable fossil fuels. One catalyst and advisor for the Business Council is Christopher Flavin, who writes about energy technologies for the think-tank Worldwatch. Natural gas is great, says Flavin. It's far more plentiful than earlier believed. It produces little sulfur or particulates when burned. And also, natural gas produces less of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide per unit of energy than does coal or oil. Chris Flavin.

FLAVIN: This country will be much better off twenty years from now, both economically and environmentally, if we replace a substantial part of our current dependence on oil and coal with reliance on natural gas. The environmental benefits will come in large measure from replacing coal, which is a very, very dirty energy source; the economic benefits will come from replacing oil.

VAN OSS: That's because the United States imports almost half of its oil from abroad. And using more gas, according to this plan, the United States will use less oil. Proponents of natural gas say that what's needed is a new mindset about the fuel, which can do more than just heat homes, cook food, and run your van. There's ongoing research and business ventures in the areas of gas turbines for jet engines and power plants, as well as new technology fuel-cells for cars. More importantly, says Flavin, natural gas could be what he calls a "bridge" fuel to a time in the future, decades from now, when pipes carrying natural gas will converted to a virtually pollution-free hydrogen system. And that hydrogen, also a gas, will be generated by solar power. Naturally coal and oil don't agree with this scenario -- they see it as unrealistic and premature.

CAINS: There's only so much natural gas can be expected to do over the next few years, that is, in the short term.

VAN OSS: Michael Cains is Vice President and chief economist with the American Petroleum Institute. He says that forty to fifty percent of American gas comes from oil producers, and even if there are large gas resources, that doesn't mean they're all economic to use, or available. Some are offshore, or in protected reserves in Alaska.

CAINS: Some have argued that natural gas could be the fuel supply for increased energy demand, that it could take the place of declining oil production in the United States, that it could be used to substitute for oil in the transportation fleet, and possibly even substitute for coal in the generation of electricity -- and when one looks at the numbers it just doesn't seem feasible that gas can do all of those things over a relatively short time period.

VAN OSS: There are down sides to natural gas -- the cost of setting up a new infrastructure, the dangers of shipping condensed gas, and the hazards of pipe-leaks. Gas is mostly methane, and methane traps heat in the atmosphere at least twenty times more efficiently than does carbon dioxide, though unlike CO2, it breaks down in ten years or so. But it does release carbon dioxide when burned, and that's why there are some environmental groups who refuse to endorse the natural gas "bridge-fuel" scenario. Steve Kretzmann, of the Greenpeace Global Warming/ Energy Campaign, says it's naive to think that natural gas industries, once in place, are just going to step aside for hydrogen, or wither away.

KRETZMANN: We went from the coal era into the oil era about sixty years ago, and now we're worried that we're entering the natural gas era, and that will perpetuate for another sixty to eighty years, which has been the pattern of the industry. The fact of the matter is, as global climate will show, we don't have that much time to cut global emissions.

VAN OSS: Still, over the next few years, a number of incentives are likely to come before Congress, such as tax-breaks for natural gas development. And there may be proposed disincentives for coal and oil. But according to Dan Becker of the Sierra Club, whatever pro-gas measures get sent to Congress, they'll encounter some hurdles in the Energy Committees.

BECKER: In the Senate the Energy Committee is run by Bennett Johnston, and I mean run by Bennett Johnston -- and he's from Louisiana and is a strong advocate of oil and nuclear power, and less so of gas. In the House, the Energy and Commerce Committee is chaired by John Dingell, who's from Detroit, and so he's very closely aligned to the auto industry.

VAN OSS: But according to Worldwatch, it won't require a whole lot of government action to spur the movement toward natural gas. Once again, Christopher Flavin.

FLAVIN: This is a transition that the private sector can largely accomplish on its own, but a clarity of vision and leadership is the key thing to getting this whole transition accelerated.

VAN OSS: Christopher Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute. For Living on Earth, this is Alex Van Oss, in Washington.



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