President Obama’s new climate action plan is the nearest thing we have to a national energy strategy. The proposal is particularly important to Ohio, which relies heavily on coal and natural gas for energy, but is paying increased attention to renewable sources.
The President’s plan makes greater use of natural gas thanks to the boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It makes life tougher for coal. And it ultimately depends on renewables such as wind, solar, and biomass power to deal with climate change.
The plan’s reliance on natural gas as a transition fuel is hard to argue against. But a transition to renewables anytime soon is more problematic.
Renewable energy sources, while promising, have miles to go before they can play a significant role in the nation’s energy mix. They are starting from very small bases and still require taxpayer subsidies.
Wind now provides about 2 percent of our energy needs, solar less than 1 percent. Biomass accounts for about 5 percent, almost all of which is ethanol from corn, a fuel plagued by high costs and the need for federal mandates to mix it with gasoline.
The role of natural gas as a transition fuel may be lengthy, probably playing out over many decades. Among its advantages, gas is currently as inexpensive as coal and far more affordable than renewables.
Thanks to fracking technology, America has quickly become the world’s leading producer of natural gas. Fracking meets at least a century of U.S. gas requirements.
Gas is the cleanest and most flexible of hydrocarbons. It produces much less carbon and sulfur emissions than coal.
Because of its flexibility, gas is a major factor in power production, is our largest source of home and commercial heating, and is an important feedstock to produce petrochemicals. It can also back up renewables when the sun isn’t shining or the wind is not blowing.
The petrochemical issue is particularly important for Ohio. Much of the state’s fracking produces “wet gases,” which are in great demand as petrochemical feedstocks.
We have hundreds of years of coal, which has traditionally produced about half of the nation’s electricity. But coal has two big problems: its strong competition from inexpensive natural gas, and the government’s push for much stronger air quality regulations.
Coal will likely continue to lose some ground to natural gas, but it’s hardly facing an inevitable decline. Electricity generation from coal can be made more efficient and cleaner. And the government plans to invest heavily in advanced clean-coal technology.
U.S. coal exports to Europe and Asia are growing rapidly. In fact, coal is the world’s fastest growing energy source. The big policy question will be the timing and stringency of new U. S. air regulations. Ironically, the President’s plan would force greater exports of coal to areas with fewer environmental controls.
It makes sense to keep improving renewables, to maximize their role in our energy mix. Based on results to date, however, it does not appear that renewables are likely to replace oil and natural gas anytime soon. If we really want to count more on renewables, we should start removing taxpayer subsidies to see whether technical and economic improvements, not politics, can carry the day.
The most promising part of the President’s climate-change program is his support of fracking. Its reliance on subsidies to promote renewables is less helpful.
The Obama Administration should think long and hard about the effects of new air quality regulations on coal. Much of that work can be done for us, if the government allows enough time to replace older coal plants with more-advanced facilities.
J. Winston Porter is an energy and environmental consultant in Savannah, Ga., and a former assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
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