April 20, 2009 at 6:30AM
by Jim DiPeso
I'm not awarding her an Earth Day gold star. And I understand and acknowledge all the "buts" and "howevers" that will surely issue forth from her many critics.
But when Sarah Palin said the other day at an Interior Department hearing that more natural gas production could aid the cause of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, she kinda sorta had a point.
As she did when she noted that for Alaska, global warming is not a theoretical model but a reality taking place in the forests and out on the ice.
It's also worth noting that Palin said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's climate scenarios are among the most credible of the modeled scenarios surely, a stick in the eye to all the diehard deniers among Palin's fans who are still claiming that global warming is caused by sunspots or that Al Gore is making the whole thing up.
But back to the gas question.
If we have to burn something for energy, using gas is better for climate stewardship than using coal. Gas combustion in power plants produces 25 to 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per kilowatt-hour than burning coal.
And, with a nod to T. Boone Pickens, gas would be a better fuel for motor vehicles from a climate perspective than petroleum-based liquids. Switching from gasoline to gas would lower greenhouse gas emissions from cars by a net 30 percent.
Moreover, the U.S. is far closer to self-sufficiency with gas than it ever will be with oil, and so far, there is no international cartel of gas exporters who meet regularly to rig the market, a la OPEC.
Of course, there are caveats. Not every place that has gas is environmentally suitable for producing it.
There are some 35 trillion cubic feet of gas under Alaska's North Slope that could be produced and shipped to Lower 48 markets if there were a pipeline in place.
Palin, of course, wouldn't settle for producing gas only from the Slope. If she had her druthers, federal lands and waters in Alaska would be thrown wide open to oil and gas production.
There is plenty there to tempt the politicians. The Department of Energy estimated in a 2007 report that economically recoverable gas resources that lie beneath the North Slope, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and the Beaufort and Chukchi seas total some 137 trillion cubic feet, equivalent to nearly six years of current U.S. gas consumption.
There's more gas under Bristol Bay, one of the world's great fishing grounds.
There are additional caveats with gas. While there are fewer carbon dioxide emissions when you compare gas to coal, there are more when you compare gas to renewables or nukes. For gas to make a significant dent in our carbon footprint, it has to displace coal or petroleum.
As for the impacts of gas production, ask Western landowners about compressor noise, air and water pollution, and habitat damage.
Still, gas could have a sustainable long-term place in our energy economy, as along as it's used efficiently, landowners are treated fairly by gas producers, water resources are protected, and sensitive areas on land and at sea are kept off limits to drilling rigs.
Under the right circumstances, gas could help us become better climate stewards. With the caveats noted above, Sarah Palin had a point.