Under President Obama’s new climate plan, Virginia is required to reduce its carbon emissions 38 percent by 2030. Natural gas — a fossil fuel — is key to meeting this ambitious goal.
Thanks to our shale revolution, the U.S. is now the world’s largest natural gas producer. With production surging, natural gas prices are just a third of what they were a few years ago. Utilities are now using more natural gas than ever for electricity generation, and as a result, U.S. emissions are in sharp decline — since gas produces just half the carbon emissions when burned instead of coal to make electricity.
In fact, over the past few years, no other country has reduced its carbon emissions faster. U.S. emissions are now at their lowest level since 1994. And yet, to many environmentalists, trading one fossil fuel for another is a mistake. But, the carbon reduction benefits of natural gas can’t be ignored.
Some folks would prefer an immediate transition to renewable sources of power, but that’s wishful thinking. Solar and wind power, while important, remain niche contributors to our supply of electricity. Combined, solar and wind still generate less than 5 percent of the nation’s power. Though they’re becoming more cost-effective in sun-drenched states and in the wind-swept plains, they need much more time to become major power contributors in the commonwealth.
Wind and solar need about 20 times as much land as conventional power plants. Also, both require back-up energy sources since the wind does not always blow, nor the sun always shine,
Governor McAuliffe has wisely come out in support of potential oil and gas exploration off of Virginia’s coast. If he also recognizes the central role natural gas is playing in helping the U.S. reach its climate goals and its recovery from the great recession, he will also lend his support to shale gas exploration in the Taylorsville basin, located southeast of Fredericksburg, and the George Washington National Forest, which overlays a section of the prolific Marcellus Shale.
Energy development in Virginia should not only include the natural gas that is increasingly important to our energy mix, but helps drive economic growth. In Pennsylvania, home to some of the most active shale development, the natural gas industry now supports more than 100,000 jobs.
Opposition to drilling in Virginia, largely the result of misinformation about hydraulic fracturing, is misplaced. Fracking has been used in oil and gas development since the late 1940s. Sally Jewell, President Obama’s new Secretary of the Interior, a petroleum engineer herself, and in charge of oil and natural gas development on federal lands, recently said, “fracking as a technique has been around for decades. … I have performed the procedure myself very safely.”
Natural gas has become the centerpiece of the nation’s climate strategy and it’s going to play an outsized role in helping Virginia meet its carbon reduction targets. It’s time the governor and his supporters embrace the shale revolution and bring its environmental and economic benefits to the commonwealth.
J. Winston Porter, a longtime resident of Northern Virginia, is an energy and environment consultant and a former assistant administrator of the EPA.