Natural Gas Battle Shifts to Imports

Published July 1, 2004

Environmental activist groups, despite last year successfully calling for increased importation of foreign natural gas as an alternative to domestic drilling, are now engaging in a campaign to oppose natural gas imports.

Activists First Championed Gas
In the 1990s, activist groups championed natural gas as a cleaner-burning alternative to coal and oil. Natural gas is a more expensive source of energy, which imposes moderately higher energy prices on consumers, but the activist groups were successful in their campaign, and nearly all electric plants built since 1998 are designed to be fueled primarily by natural gas.

Having coerced the shift to natural gas, however, the activist groups now have embarked on a campaign to ban domestic natural gas drilling. Throwing up environmental arguments in opposition to virtually all new applications to drill for gas, the groups succeeded in creating a natural gas shortage severe enough by the summer of 2003 to capture the attention of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Congressional hearings.

“At home, natural gas supplies from old wells are diminishing and permits to allow new domestic and offshore drilling have been slowed by environment regulation,” reported Major Garrett of Fox News.

America is blessed with huge natural gas fields. But roughly 40 percent of U.S. natural gas reserves are already off limits to drilling due to regulation.

“We’re not running out of natural gas, and we’re not running out of places to look for natural gas,” said Keith Rattie, president of energy developer Questar. “However, we are running out of places we are allowed to look for gas.”

“Radical environmental groups have held up safe energy production on federal lands,” explained House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-California). “Continuing moratoria, permitting backlogs, and radical environmentalist lawsuits have left Americans with as high as 1,000 percent price spikes in natural gas.”

The activist groups’ opposition to domestic natural gas production exists even though a study by the Rand Corporation concluded, “for the most part, the concentrations of economically recoverable gas exist in areas of relatively lower potential environmental concern.”

Imports Now Challenged, Too
Giving in to activist demands, the major energy companies shifted their focus to natural gas production in other countries, with the intent to import liquified natural gas (LNG) into the U.S. Now, however, the same activist groups are opposing the importation of natural gas.

David Gordon, acting executive director of Pacific Environment, argued in the May 23 issue of USA Today, “LNG is often touted as a clean source of energy, but when you take into account the extraction, liquification, and transportation of the gas, it contributes significantly to global warming. Plus, LNG will come from controversial gas fields abroad, where energy companies take advantage of lax environmental laws.”

By launching an advertising blitz claiming natural gas imports are environmentally unfriendly, Vallejo for Community Planned Renewal (VCPR) succeeded last year in thwarting plans to build a natural gas port and power plant along the California coast.

“Do we want a vibrant community with a variety of businesses, plenty of living wage jobs for our citizens, well-funded schools, and clean air to breathe, or do we want industrial blight, difficulty attracting non-industrial businesses, lower property values, poorly funded schools, polluted air and sick children?” read a VCPR brochure.

Puzzled observers wondering why activist groups would first champion natural gas, then fight domestic production in favor of imported gas, and then fight imported gas and domestic gas as well need only look at the policy statement of the radical Border Power Plant Working Group (BPPWG).

According to BPPWG, only power sources resulting in “net zero” emissions are environmentally acceptable. In other words, any power source other than solar, biomass, wind, etc., will be opposed, even if doing so requires overlooking the negative environmental aspects of such “green” energy sources. Pacific Environment’s Gordon asserted in USA Today, “growth in demand can be met with efficiency measures and renewable energy technologies.”

Just Can’t Win
Energy companies and state legislators who acquiesced to the activist groups’ initial demands feel betrayed.

Marathon Oil recently announced its intention to build natural gas plants in Mexico’s Baja California. But activist groups have announced opposition to the new plants, claiming they will cause “sight pollution” along the Mexican coast.

“They are dumping this on us because environmental laws are lax here,” said Francisco Carrillo of Mexico’s left-wing opposition PRD party, in language nearly word-for-word that used by Gordon in USA Today.

The Mexican government has already rescinded its approval for one Marathon Oil natural gas plant, and may rescind its approval of natural gas plants proposed by other companies as well.

“We are working closely with environmental groups, but we are going to face big challenges,” an oil company source told the Reuters news service.

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