Regulatory Policy

Environmentalists Should Not Oppose Natural Gas

Drill pipe at a Permian Basin oil and natural gas production area near Wink, Texas, in 2018. (Nick Oxford/Reuters )
Investing in energy infrastructure boosts economic growth and reduces environmental harm.

Opposition to infrastructure investment for the production and transport of conventional energy is de rigueur on the environmentalist left, a stance widely justified as an important bulwark for the protection of environmental quality. This is part of the “keep-it-in-the-ground” dimension of the ideological opposition to fossil fuels, itself a deeply anti-human drive intended explicitly to hinder economic growth and increased flourishing among the world’s poorest.

The “environmental-protection” rationale for that opposition to investment is silly, a reality demonstrated by only one observation: New energy-infrastructure investment by definition replaces older facilities and provides alternatives that are cleaner, environmentally safer, and less dangerous for workers and communities. The shutdown of older infrastructure without replacement incontrovertibly leads to a reduction in the stock of productive capital, a reduction in the supply of energy and the economic value of the natural-resource base, and less aggregate wealth. How a poorer society can protect environmental quality more effectively than a wealthier one has never been explained, except for the incoherent argument that the substitution of utterly inefficient, unreliable, and expensive “clean” (actually, very dirty) wind and solar electricity in place of fossil-fired power will effect that end.

In light of these realities, continued investment in infrastructure for the production and transport of conventional energy is an absolute necessity both economically and environmentally. That is why the ideological opposition to new pipeline investment is perverse, a central component of the larger political opposition to fossil fuels. Recent examples of this resistance include opposition to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, as well as the Atlantic Coast and Northeast Supply Enhancement gas pipelines. An environmental-safety comparison of alternative-transport systems — pipelines, railroads, and trucks — is complex, but there is substantial evidence that pipeline transport is safer under a broad range of conditions.

And it is not as if there is no regulatory oversight of pipeline-construction projects. Consider the Permian Highway Pipeline (PHP), a 430-mile project currently under construction, which will transport gas produced in west Texas to the Gulf Coast. Apart from the eternal resistance of the environmental lobby, the project also faces opposition from the residents of Texas Hill Country, who are politically active and would prefer that the pipeline be routed elsewhere. (They have been joined in that opposition by those famous musicians and noted experts on energy policy, Willie Nelson and Paul Simon.) Political pressures and litigation threats lead regulators to exercise oversight over minute details: Since March, the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) has conducted more than 75 inspections of welding, coating, trench integrity, safety issues, and recordkeeping. At a more general level, the RRC has the right political incentives precisely because of the underlying politics (it prefers to avoid future embarrassment), and can anyone doubt that the pipeline operator (Kinder Morgan) would prefer to take appropriate cautions now so as to avoid major problems after operations begin?

Such an extensive inspection and review process is appropriate as a means of providing confidence that future environmental issues will prove minor as they emerge. It is a vast improvement over the legalisms of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), reform of which has been proposed by the Trump administration. NEPA for decades has been a source of massive delay and cost increases for federal projects. Like much environmental legislation, it has yielded actual environmental harm because of its inherent bias toward the status quo over new investment promising improved environmental outcomes. NEPA is a useful tool for opposition to new infrastructure projects even as the underlying arguments presented in support of such opposition are largely spurious.

A sharp reduction in investment in energy infrastructure would make the economy poorer, and in the long run poorer is dirtier. Such an investment decline would leave older, more environmentally harmful, and more dangerous infrastructure in place. Pipelines largely are safer and more benign environmentally than other infrastructure. A rigorous and continuing inspection regime is vastly more consistent with environmental protection than opposition through litigation. And both regulators and private-sector operators have powerful incentives to pursue safety and benign environmental outcomes.

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