Natural gas

Gov. John Hickenlooper is not known for carrying the political water of any particular industry or interest group – a trait that has landed him in some trouble with those who thought they had a friend in the governor. In calling on Coloradans to embrace natural gas as a “transitional fuel” that will lead America away from traditional fossil fuels such as coal and toward fully renewable-energy sources, Hickenlooper again has alienated some environmental advocates. Though the devil is in the details, from a practical standpoint, Hickenlooper is right.

Burning natural gas is proven to be a cleaner alternative to coal or gasoline, and in the reduced emissions associated with the fuel comes a lesser carbon footprint. This reduced contribution of greenhouse gases associated with climate change is an absolutely critical priority for all energy policies – state, national and global – and, as such, makes natural gas a preferred alternative to traditional fuel sources. It is not, however, a panacea.

Critics rightly have pointed out that the full life-cycle impacts of natural-gas production – air- and water-quality problems associated with production and distribution, for instance – are not factored into analyses of the fuel’s emissions profile. That broader picture should inform the regulations governing how natural gas is gathered.

The technology that Hickenlooper cited as improving natural gas’ cleanliness and efficiency, namely horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, indeed are boosting production and lessening some land and air disturbance associated with well-pad development.

There are, however, large questions about the effects that fracking can have on groundwater. Hickenlooper has been somewhat cavalier in his response to concerns raised about fracking impacts, much to the dismay of environmentalists and neighbors of gas development. Their concerns are legitimate and warrant consideration, both in tempering the natural-gas love fest as well as in spurring the move toward improved technology or fully renewable-energy resources.

At the other end of the spectrum lies some environmentalists’ wholesale rejection of natural gas as an improvement over traditional fossil fuels. Those who espouse this argument say we instead should shift to wind, solar or other renewable sources.

That is fine in theory, but there exists a significant gap between that goal and the capacity to fill it. There should be a collective effort to bridge that gap, with incentives and investment for those who produce clean energy, but in the meantime, it would be irresponsible to reject technology that gets us closer to our greenhouse gas reduction goals.

As with most things, the answer to the energy conundrum is multifaceted. Hickenlooper’s advocacy of natural gas is appropriate but should be moderated with a few caveats that recognize and mitigate for the negative impacts associated with the fuel’s production. Likewise, those who oppose natural-gas production would contribute more to the conversation if they offered realistic alternatives or focused on addressing the heart of their concerns. It would seem there is room for a productive meeting in the middle.

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