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Special Energy Report / ENERGY

War Over Natural Gas About to Escalate

Sierra Club launches 'Beyond Gas' campaign.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune on the National Mall in June 2010(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

photo of Amy Harder
May 3, 2012

The rocky relationship between one of the world’s most influential environmental groups and the natural-gas industry is headed toward full-scale combat.

The Sierra Club is intensifying its natural-gas reform campaign and renaming it “Beyond Gas,” a spin-off of its decade-old “Beyond Coal” campaign seeking the phaseout of coal-fired power plants.

“As we push to retire coal plants, we’re going to work to make sure we’re not simultaneously switching to natural-gas infrastructure,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune told National Journal in an interview on Wednesday. “And we’re going to be preventing new gas plants from being built wherever we can.”

 

The name for the campaign was actually decided about two weeks ago but hasn’t yet appeared prominently on the group’s website, Brune said. “Beyond Gas” represents a significant expansion of the group’s ongoing efforts against increased natural-gas production and will be integrated with campaigns against the other major fossil fuels, oil and coal.

The stronger anti-gas push is “in large part due to the emerging reality that the climate impact of gas is much worse than we thought, and the availability of renewables is much better than we thought,” Brune said.

That 33 states now have renewable-electricity standards shows that the country is closer to depending on clean energy sch as wind and solar power than most people think, he said. “It would be the height of irony if we decrease our reliance on coal and rather than jumping to clean energy, we replace one dirty fuel with another.” 

To some longtime energy experts, the Sierra Club’s growing hostility toward natural gas isn’t surprising. "I have warned that based on concerns by some environmentalists, gas could become the coal of tomorrow," said Lisa Epifani, a partner at Van Ness Feldman who was previously an assistant secretary of Energy and counsel to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee under former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

Vast reserves of shale natural gas discovered in recent years have promised the country decades of a domestic energy supply that many experts—along with President Obama—consider a cleaner fossil-fuel alternative to coal and oil. Natural gas burns with 50 percent fewer emissions than coal and is 20 to 30 percent cleaner than oil.

But the gas boom has also brought growing environmental concerns, particularly about hydraulic fracturing, the extraction process known as “fracking” that some fear is contaminating drinking-water supplies. The process also could be causing increased methane emissions that can intensify global warming.

Some studies have found that when considering the entire production cycle, natural gas might be worse for climate change than oil and coal because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas. No hard data exist—and that has environmentalists worried.

The Sierra Club had once embraced natural gas as a temporary, cleaner bridge fuel to renewable energy. Other environmental organizations also did, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund.

But the Sierra Club, more than the other two influential organizations, has become increasingly outspoken against natural gas in the past year or two, especially since Brune took over as executive director from Carl Pope, who stepped down in 2010 after 18 years in the post.

Brune said his group is doubling down on its efforts against gas in reaction to proposals to export natural gas and the increasing shift from coal to gas in the electricity sector. That’s not all that’s changed in the past two years: The collapse of climate-change legislation and near record-low natural-gas prices have created a market landscape where natural gas is poised to win out over renewables and nuclear power.

Brune referred to the impetus for his group’s Beyond Coal campaign, which launched in 2002 in reaction to trends in the power market to build more than 150 coal plants. The campaign’s goal has been retirement of one-third of the nation’s more 500-plus coal plants by 2020.

By galvanizing and harnessing local opposition to coal, the Sierra Club takes credit for retiring 106 coal plants and preventing 150 from being built. “We follow business-development plans,” Brune said.

Of course, the reasons that a coal plant is retired or not built are debatable. “What causes these plants to be approved or rejected—everybody is speculating at first,” Brune said. “Sometimes it was economics that prevailed and that’s what helped defeat the plant.”

In a sign of the fights to come over natural-gas plants, Brune added, “As we’ve learned over the years, politics become very local very quickly.”

Because of cheap natural-gas prices and environmental rules hitting coal plants, the electricity market is shifting quickly to natural-gas-powered plants. The second-largest utility in the country and one of the most traditionally coal-dependent, American Electric Power, increased its natural-gas capacity by 24 percent last year, and it expects to increase that by another 14 percent this year.

“At the peak of 2007 and 2008, we were taking about 80 million tons of coal a year. That’s what we were burning,” said AEP CEO and Chairman Nick Akins in a recent interview. “Today, that’s probably down to the order of 55 million tons of coal a year. You can see the coal dropping and the natural gas picking up.”

Other groups in the environmental community aren’t as quick to shun gas entirely. The Environmental Defense Fund continues to actively work with the natural-gas industry to ensure safe hydraulic fracturing practices and does not actively oppose gas-export terminals as the Sierra Club does.

“Among some, there is a tendency to lose sight of the fact that it isn’t as if natural gas somehow is new to the energy economy,” said Mark Brownstein, chief counsel for EDF’s national energy program. He noted that natural gas accounts for 25 percent of U.S. energy consumption, and that two-thirds of that has always been used to heat homes and businesses. EDF is working with several oil and natural-gas companies, including Shell, to measure methane emissions from production processes.

EDF has spoken out about the unanswered questions related to the methane emissions of natural gas, and that’s where the two groups are most in sync, Brune said.

“Where we are in alignment is in our mutual growing alarm about how gas is contributing to climate change in ways that are more intense than we thought previously,” Brune said. “I would say that EDF has perhaps more confidence that some of the environmental concerns associated with fracking can be addressed effectively.”

The Sierra Club faces a global challenge of skyrocketing coal exports and the advent of natural-gas exports.

But Brune doesn’t seem deterred. In fact, his organization is in the early stages of battling coal power in the exploding economies of India and China and fighting coal exports in Australia and Indonesia.

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