The environmental movement has long been and will remain a crucial engine behind environmental policy, but I believe it really needs to reorient itself toward policies that matter, and in the process give up on its misplaced obsessions.
First, environmentalists’ obsession with reducing carbon emissions is NOT misplaced. I am not just worried, but scared for my children and theirs because of the more violent and extreme weather, rising oceans, and warmer climate we will very likely be leaving them.
But I think that the environmental community, having seen relatively comprehensive climate legislation fail, is now operating under two major misplaced obsessions: first, that all fossil fuels must be kept in the ground and, second and more specifically, that natural gas development must be stopped (or at least slowed) because of its fugitive methane emissions—which, if sufficiently large, would make it a dirtier fuel than coal from a carbon perspective.
The second obsession, I think, is relatively easy to dismiss. Look at EPA’s 2012 GHG emissions inventory released yesterday. These are a mix of measured and top-down estimates, subject to some error, but surely in the ballpark. Fugitive methane emissions from the entire natural gas system are estimated to be only 127 teragrams (Tg) of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases (CO2e), out of a US total of 5,490 Tg CO2e. Nearly all of this total is from fossil fuel combustion (5,066 Tg) (92 percent). So even eliminating all methane leaks would only reduce emissions by 2%! Compared to the emissions from electricity generation (mostly coal) of 2,000 Tg, or vehicles (1,700 Tg), moves to cut fugitive methane are like the proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.
The environmental community has only so many people, only so much time, and only so many dollars. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to focus efforts on where the big numbers are? Increasing efficiency, for example by tightening mobile source fuel economy/GHG standards (as EPA is already doing) would help far more; reducing the use of energy with policies that help us drive less or use less electricity might have even lower costs. Reducing fugitive methane emissions does make natural gas look better than coal, improving its prospects, but it does little for GHG emissions.
Ultimately, as the Washington Post says about once a month and as we at RFF and economists around the world mention probably every other day, the way to decide which of these options gives the most bang for the buck is to put a tax on carbon (with wise use of revenues, perhaps on renewable energy or carbon capture and sequestration technology innovations) and let the millions of energy consumers and producers make their choices. Despite their frustration with Congress after the failure of cap-and-trade, the environmental movement can and should be doing a lot more to push a carbon tax.
The first misplaced obsession—that we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground—is not realistic, and would be extremely costly to attempt (at least for oil and gas—coal may be a different question). Environmentalists oppose export terminals for natural gas like Cove Point in Maryland, oppose lifting the current ban on US oil exports, and oppose the Keystone XL pipeline—each on the grounds that they would result in more fossil fuel being produced and, therefore, more carbon emissions. But trying to constrain fossil fuel supply is like squeezing a balloon. If the demand is there, the markets will meet it. Canada can go elsewhere with its oil sands. If they cannot import US gas, Japan and India will instead look to Australia or, probably worse from a GHG perspective, Indonesia or the Middle East. And such exports, to the extent they replace coal generation with natural gas, particularly in a place like India, can very likely reduce GHG emissions on net, even counting liquefaction-related CO2 emissions. It is true that substituting renewables or nuclear for fossil fuels would have big climate benefits, but renewables are already mandated and nuclear has faced setback after setback.
What keeping the fuels in the ground really means is raising energy prices for reasons unrelated to their relative GHG impacts, introducing inefficiencies in how energy is distributed globally, and foregoing economic growth. And like all obsessions, this one distracts attention and draws resources away from the most important and effective solutions to the climate problem.
This post was modified slightly from its original form on February 27, 2014.