Greens who care most about global warming are in a tough spot. One of the biggest climate killers is coal, a 19th century fuel that may bake the planet well into the 21st century. As Jeff Goodell notes in Rolling Stone,
We still burn nearly a billion tons of it a year in America, almost all of it to generate electricity.
Even still, Goodell argues that
coal is dying in America, and everyone knows it. In the largest sense, it's being killed off by technological progress and the rising awareness of the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy. Even the biggest coal boosters have long admitted that coal is a dying industry "“ the fight has always been over how fast and how hard the industry will fall.
This has to cheer greens, who haven't had much to cheer about on the climate change front. Then again, maybe not. For as Goodell notes:
The real dagger in coal's heart is natural gas "“ more accurately, cheap natural gas from "unconventional" sources like shale and other porous rocks. Thanks to new technologies like horizontal drilling and fracking, we are suddenly awash in gas, and prices are lower than they've been in decade. Drilling and fracking is its own kind of nightmare, but for better or worse, one incontestable consequence of cheap gas is that it has driven many electricity generators to turn off the coal plants and fire up the natural gas generators instead.
For better or worse is the argument raging these days. Meanwhile, the natural gas revolution is stunting the growth potential of a climate-friendly source of energy: Nuclear power. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
The U.S. nuclear industry seemed to be staging a comeback several years ago, with 15 power companies proposing as many as 29 new reactors. Today, only two projects are moving off the drawing board. What killed the revival wasn't last year's nuclear accident in Japan, nor was it a soft economy that dented demand for electricity. Rather, a shale-gas boom flooded the U.S. market with cheap natural gas, offering utilities a cheaper, less risky alternative to nuclear technology. "It's killed off new coal and now it's killing off new nuclear," says David Crane, chief executive of NRG Energy Inc., a power-generation company based in Princeton, NJ. "Gas has come along at just the right time to upset everything." Across the country, utilities are turning to natural gas to generate electricity, with 258 plants expected to be built from 2011 through 2015, federal statistics indicate.
It sure seems as if a bridge to somewhere is getting built, despite what some would have us believe (but only after the fossil fuel money spigot dried up). Anyway, one thing's for sure: The natural gas revolution has arrived, and it's upending the energy/climate debate.