Energy & Environment

Gassing Up

Workers put the final touches on a natural gas well platform near Parachute, Colo., in 2014. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
Guess what: Energy production is getting better and cleaner, and not as a result of the fiat of some central-planning committee.

My first real political memory is feeling a little bit sorry for Jimmy Carter but also perplexed at what seemed to be the proximate cause of all the contempt — and outright hatred — directed at him: gasoline lines and rationing. “How is it that we have an oil crisis?” I wondered. “This is Texas. This is where oil comes from. We drive past oil wells all the time. We have oil wells on the golf course.”

Confusing stuff for a little kid.

That was a long time ago. I’m still confused.

Dozens of communities in the woefully misgoverned states of New York and Massachusetts are facing what amounts to a moratorium on the construction of modern new homes. Why? Because the utility providers there will not approve new gas connections, for a good reason — they can’t get the gas they need.

The United States is, at the moment, pumping out natural gas faster than you can make related Taco Bell jokes. The United States is by far the world’s largest natural-gas producer, head and shoulders above No. 2, Russia. The growth in U.S. gas production — not the total output, just the growth alone — since the turn of the century is, as energy journalist Robert Bryce runs the numbers, equal to about twice the annual output of Iran, the world’s No. 3 gas producer.

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have been around for a long time, but it’s only recently that we’ve become really, really good at it, as a result of which long-neglected deposits of oil and gas written off as too expensive to economically extract have come on line in a big way. This has transformed local economies in places such as Midland, Texas, and the Marcellus shale country, but it also has transformed the U.S. economy in ways that are not widely appreciated.

While the amateur schemers in Washington dream of a “Green New Deal,” the people who actually know what they’re doing have achieved a reduction of nearly a third in carbon-dioxide emissions related to electricity production — and not at great cost and inconvenience but while reducing expenses as cheap, abundant, and relatively clean (there isn’t any such thing as “clean energy,” only relatively clean energy) natural gas displaces coal. That wasn’t the result of the fiat of some central-planning committee with godlike powers over the economy; it was the result of innovation, competition, and market choices. That hard work was done while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was still trying to figure out how to change the margarita mix at Flats Fix.

In fact, U.S. emissions from energy consumption were lower in November 2018 (the most recent figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration) than they were 20 years ago (in November 1998) in spite of all the economic growth and population growth we’ve seen since then. Coal emissions are down by more than a third in that period. And those are just the gross numbers. Consider emissions per unit of energy output (or per unit of GDP), and the numbers are even better.

New York and Massachusetts would love to have some of that. But you can’t get a gas hookup in the New York City suburbs. As I wrote earlier, this is a political choice, not a matter of scarcity. New York has gas of its own that could be developed, providing energy, jobs, and tax revenue — but Governor Andrew Cuomo has effectively forbidden it. Likewise, gas could be brought in from Pennsylvania and West Virginia — if Governor Cuomo would allow new pipeline capacity to be added. But he won’t.

Why?

Here’s a little political inside baseball for you. In spite of all of the breathless nonsense from dress-over-the-head second-raters such as Chris Hedges, the Christian Right has never had the kind of influence inside the Republican party attributed to it by its critics. And, if you’ve ever worked inside conservative activism, you know exactly why: They’ll pray for you, but God Himself has a hard time getting any of His biggest fans to write a check. It’s a different story for the Pagan Left. (Too much, you think? Let’s see: apocalyptic narrative, punitive floods inflicted by an angry somebody, reformist social agenda, obsession with other people’s sinful lifestyles, indulgences for the likes of Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio, zany fundamentalists who turn up their noses at science in defense of the scriptures — tell me environmentalism isn’t a quasi-religious movement.) The Pagan Left will write a check, a big honking one, a flood of them — consult Tom Steyer. As a consequence, it has a far bigger cultural and political footprint inside the Democratic party than the issues alone would merit.

And it has declared war on energy infrastructure from gas pipelines to power plants to depots receiving coal for export. If your belief is that the production and consumption of energy is an activity that comes with inevitable environmental consequences that have to be mitigated, then natural gas looks like a win: In nine-tenths of political disputes, the most relevant question is: Compared with what? And natural gas looks pretty good compared with the current alternatives: fossil fuels that pollute more, alternative sources that are more expensive and that require backup from conventional sources, etc. Not to say that something better might not come along: There are some guys down in Houston right now operating a natural-gas facility that releases no emissions at all into the atmosphere.

But not everybody sees this as a question of tradeoffs. Some people have an ideological-bordering-on-metaphysical belief that more energy consumption is bad, full stop, and that what the human race really needs is less: less consumption, less production, less energy — and, preferably, fewer people, too. That isn’t really environmentalism, exactly. (Whose environment?) It’s a different kind of creed. If that’s your thing, it’s a free country, but spare me the lectures about how much you “f*****g love science.”

The above-mentioned Robert Bryce, and Mike Sommers of the American Petroleum Institute, will be joining me for a discussion of the gas boom at the National Review Institute Ideas Summit this week in Washington. There’s a lot more to the story.

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