Radical environmentalism is waging a war on natural gas.
The Green New Deal, launched to great fanfare in February by socialist Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward Markey, calls for the total ban on all hydrocarbon energy in ten years. Instead, we must meet “100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” Any fuel that produces carbon dioxide, including oil, coal, and natural gas must make way for “carbon neutral” energy.
These are not just empty words. Green activists are using every means at their disposal to implement this goal. Unable to stop gas production nationwide, elected officials in liberal states have used their power to block the construction of new regional gas pipelines. The result has been regional price spikes and even gas shortages. Last winter, gas prices in places such as New York City, Seattle, Boston, and Los Angeles have spiked to several times the national average.
At the same time that the rest of the country is awash in gas, lack of pipeline capacity has forced some gas utilities to reject new customers. Indeed, two utility companies in the New York City area have stopped accepting new natural-gas customers. They cite jammed supply lines as the reason why they cannot guarantee gas delivery, even though the huge Marcellus Shale gas field is not far away.
In West Texas, there is so much extra natural gas that drillers burn it off for lack of a way to get it to markets. Thus, natural-gas prices are lopsided with low prices on commodities exchanges, but high costs far from the fields that supply markets. This uneven distribution of gas is causing uncertainty for developers and stifling economic growth.
The Wall Street Journal reports that, “One reason for the problem is that pipelines have become political. Proponents of reducing the use of fossil fuels have had little luck limiting drilling in energy-rich regions. Instead, they’ve turned to fighting pipeline projects on environmental grounds in regions like New York and the Pacific Northwest, where they have a more sympathetic ear.”
It wasn’t always this way. Ironically, New York is the very state where natural gas extraction began in America nearly two hundred years ago.
In 1821, the first dedicated well to obtain natural gas was built in Fredonia, New York, close to the shore of Lake Erie. It produced just enough gas to fuel two stores, two shops, and a gristmill. By the end of the nineteenth century, technology had made natural gas into a major source of lighting in urban areas. Beginning in the 1920s, the United States built a massive network of interstate natural gas pipeline infrastructure. Today, natural gas is one of America’s biggest sources of energy. More than half of all homes in the United States use gas, and it is the country’s main energy used for heating and cooking.
Until recently, most people considered the widespread use of natural gas to be a social and scientific triumph. Compared to its main alternatives (wood, oil, coal, and electricity), natural gas is cleaner, cheaper, more reliable, and less labor-intensive. Some twentieth-century politicians even won elections promising to deliver natural gas to their constituents. And unlike some sources of energy such as oil, there is no need to import gas from foreign countries.
Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” allows gas extraction from previously inaccessible shale rock formations (mostly in Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia). The technology has turned the United States into the largest producer of natural gas in the world. Thanks largely to the fracking revolution, natural gas production has increased by 44% in the last decade. In 2018, gas surpassed coal as our country’s largest source of energy for electricity generation.2 It has permanently shifted the global energy landscape in America’s favor, freeing us from importing natural gas from our enemies and allowing us to export it to our allies.
Gas production has grown so fast, in fact, that pipeline capacity cannot keep up with demand. Utilities are scrambling to build the large regional pipelines—which can be 24 inches in diameter or larger—that transfer gas from where it is produced to the cities where people live.
Much of New York State sits atop the Marcellus shale formation, the largest natural gas field in the United States. Rather than embrace this energy bounty for his fellow New Yorkers, Governor Andrew Cuomo is trying to kill it in the race to make his state the first to implement the Green New Deal.
He has delayed or canceled several gas pipelines that would have relieved the supply bottleneck for his state. On July 18, with Al Gore by his side, Cuomo signed into law the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The law requires that New York get 70% of its electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2030 (compared to 26% today). By 2050, the state must reach total “net-zero” emissions.
It is impossible to achieve these goals without making energy both more expensive and less abundant. New York State already has the ninth-highest electricity prices in America. Renewables such as wind and solar promise to push them even higher.3 Governor Cuomo touts offshore wind farms as a solution for climate change. But they produce electricity that is 2.5 times higher in cost than natural gas.
In addition, “carbon neutral” is impossible without eliminating natural gas as a heating and cooking fuel. Green activists propose replacing gas ranges for all-electric appliances, and traditional gas and oil furnaces for “heat pumps.” Both are more expensive, less reliable, and produce inferior heat than gas. Heat pumps, in particular, are a very poor heat substitute for harsh, northern winters like those in upstate New York.
Economic health is directly linked to energy consumption. If energy becomes expensive or unavailable, then the economy will cease to grow, workers will lose their jobs, and residents will move elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal story tells how one New York commercial real-estate broker John Barrett canceled a major project when he heard that Consolidated Edison Inc. was not taking new gas customers. Another urban development project in New Rochelle, N.Y. that included a new city hall and fire station is now in limbo.
Not to be outdone by the East Coast, Berkeley, California passed an ordinance that bans all natural gas hookups for new houses or apartment buildings beginning on January 1, 2020. In the future, all cooking and heating must be done with electricity (which in California is the fifth most expensive in the lower 48 states). “I’m proud to vote on groundbreaking legislation to prohibit natural gas in new buildings,” tweeted Mayor Jesse Arreguin. “We are committed to the #ParisAgreement and must take immediate action in order to reach our climate action goals. It’s not radical, it’s necessary.”4
Berkeley’s ordinance is the first of its kind, but already other municipalities are proposing similar laws. Today they are banning new gas hookups. How long until green ideology leads to the banning of natural gas outright?
For a preview of the Green New Future, one needs to look no farther than downtown Manhattan over the past few weeks. 50,000 New Yorkers lost power due to high electricity demand from a heatwave. The previous week, 75,000 lost power thanks to a transformer fire.
Renewables such as wind and solar are less reliable, less flexible, more expensive, and unable to scale up to demand like traditional sources such as gas, coal, or nuclear. That, combined with natural gas pipeline constraints, will almost certainly lead to greater and more widespread power outages in the future. The Green New Future promises to leave Americans shivering (or sweltering) in the dark.
Updated August 8, 2019.