MARIETTA, Ohio — Construction of natural gas pipelines in the eastern United States is running up against fierce local opposition. It’s a helmet-to-helmet environmental dispute like no other and it could stall the shale revolution and pose a greater danger to America’s energy supply than anything that could come from OPEC or Vladimir Putin.
The reality is that almost nobody likes or appreciates natural gas pipelines. Let’s simply note that everyday life wouldn’t be the same without the gas that these pipelines carry for electricity generation, home heating and cooking, and industrial production. And there is little question that demand for natural gas is rising. Witness the retirement of aging coal and nuclear plants in favor of those that burn low-cost, clean natural gas.
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Without improvements in the natural gas infrastructure, experts say that half of the nation’s economy from the Northeast to the Midwest will be under severe stress. Without adequate gas supplies, energy-intensive industries would be unable to remain open and the electrical-power-generating industry would suffer significantly. Thousands of working people could lose their jobs. Local economies, especially here in Appalachia, would suffer.
These simple but glaringly obvious facts seem to be ignored by those who object to new pipelines that would carry gas from the Marcellus and Utica shales to New York state and New England or to markets in the South and Midwest. Impeding pipeline construction, no matter the consequences, just does not make sense.
Yes, sometimes there are legitimate differences over pipeline routes. But differences have been resolved without accusing pipeline companies of vile motives. Pipelines are the only way to move natural gas, just as power lines are the only way to move electricity.
Those ardent environmentalists whose goal is to keep natural gas in the ground in the belief that renewable sources alone can prevent the worst effects of climate change are deluding themselves. From their point of view, opposing a pipeline isn’t a technical issue; it’s part of a belief that producing energy from natural gas is evil. And they are undaunted in their view that renewables are what matter. Never mind that, despite generous tax credits and state mandates, solar and wind power, combined, supplied 10 percent of the nation’s electricity supply in March, according to the Energy Information Agency.
Once you understand that electricity generated from solar and wind systems alone isn’t the answer, it all falls into place. If we hope to reduce carbon emissions to safe and acceptable levels, we are going to need a mix of low-carbon energy sources, with natural gas being the most important one.
Keep in mind that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, have unlocked enough natural gas to last through this century and beyond and that is reshaping the world order. For one thing, it is already providing Europe with an alternative to Russian natural gas. It’s small wonder that Vladimir Putin opposes fracking, once telling an energy conference that “black stuff comes out of the tap.” No technology has done more to lower the global price of energy and counter Russia’s expansionism than horizontal drilling and fracking.
And just as an abundance of natural gas has served the geopolitical interests of the United States and our allies in Europe, exports of U.S. liquefied natural gas have the potential to improve air quality in China, Japan, and other Asian countries that once had no cleaner and safer alternative to coal.
Given that America’s energy policy is likely to be one of the big political issues over the next few years – and maybe the biggest one – it’s worth understanding who really has benefited from the shale revolution. Once you do, you can get a sense for the importance of the pipelines that carry gas to markets where it’s in great demand.
Building a pipeline infrastructure that is an essential component of a robust and resilient energy system is critical to America’s economic future and energy independence. That’s something worth fighting for.
Robert W. Chase is an emeritus professor in Marietta College’s Department of Petroleum Engineering & Geology.
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