An Unnecessary Energy Crisis

Published August 1, 2003

Since 1998, virtually all newly constructed power plants have been designed to run on natural gas.

Not that it is any cheaper to produce power from natural gas–in fact, coal and oil are generally cheaper. But the federal government, under pressure from environmental activist groups, has utilized a multitude of carrot-and-stick measures to encourage greater use of natural gas.

The problem, as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham have pointed out, is that we must obtain all this natural gas from somewhere. An increase in natural gas demand must be met by a corresponding increase in natural gas supply.

This shouldn’t pose much of a problem, because America is blessed with huge natural gas fields. However, the same liberal environmentalists who have pressured the government to discourage coal and oil use are now pressuring the government to keep America’s natural gas reserves off limits to recovery. Roughly 40 percent of U.S. natural gas reserves are already off limits.

The result of these cross-purpose efforts is an intensifying, artificial shortage in natural gas supplies. The price of natural gas is up by as much as 700 percent over the past three years. This is not only hurting American consumers with their home heating bills, but it is also hurting job creation, as industry must spend more of its money paying unnecessarily high prices for fuel.


The most ironic result of the artificial natural gas shortage is that power plants are switching back to coal and oil as a result of the steep increase in natural gas prices. By cordoning off so much of America’s natural gas reserves, allegedly to protect the environment, liberal environmentalists are ensuring America uses more oil and coal than would otherwise be the case.

Discouraging the use of oil and coal was the reason these groups pressured the government to encourage the use of natural gas in the first place. One can’t help get the image of a dog running around in circles chasing its tail.

The initial premise behind the switch to natural gas is that oil and coal use is creating an unhealthy environment. This premise is as dated as “That 70s Show.”

According to EPA 1998 statistics (just before the large-scale switch to natural gas), atmospheric soot is down roughly 67 percent from 1970 levels. Carbon monoxide emissions are roughly 20 percent lower than in 1970. Sulfur dioxide is down roughly 37 percent from 1970 levels. And lead emissions are down more than 90 percent since 1970.

Remarkably, these reductions in air pollution were realized during a time period when American energy consumption increased by 40 percent, U.S. Gross Domestic Product rose by 150 percent, and the nation’s population grew by tens of millions. In short, the air is cleaner today than at any time in recent memory, and it is getting cleaner all the time.

Indeed, the Bush administration’s Clear Skies Initiative is expected, by 2018, to further reduce sulfur dioxide by 73 percent, nitrogen oxides by 67 percent, and mercury emissions by 69 percent.

A Natural Resource Blessing

Such improvements in air quality are largely the result of technological advances in the use of coal and oil.

For example, coal has long been demonized as an unclean fuel source. However, new coal combustion processes remove pollutants–or prevent them from even forming–when coal burns; advanced scrubbers clean pollutants from smokestack flues before they can enter the environment; and new plants can convert coal into a gas that has the same environmental characteristics as natural gas. Similar technologies have been making oil burn ever-cleaner as well.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “Coal is truly America’s energy strength. It is to the U.S. what crude oil is to Saudi Arabia.” With today’s technology, there is no environmental justification for turning our back on such a natural resource blessing.

To be sure, our environment is one of America’s most valuable assets, and environmental considerations should factor in to all of our economic activity and decision-making. But creating a costly, artificial energy crisis to address a nonexistent environmental problem is sheer folly–with or without the tail-chasing.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].