U.N.: Sierra Club Wrong about Natural Gas

Last week, world leaders gathered in Brazil as part of the Rio + 20 Conference to discuss a whole bunch of important things: energy, climate, environmental protection, economic development, quality of life, and equity of opportunity for the world’s poor. And wouldn’t you know it? The development of natural gas from shale featured prominently in each and every one of those discussions.

According to Kandeh Yumkella, an energy program director at the United Nations, natural gas will play a key role in preserving the global environment and improving the lives of the world’s poor.

As Reuters reports:

“Natural gas, including non-traditional shale gas, should play a major role in cutting greenhouse gases, protecting forests and improving the health and living standards of the world’s poor, the co-head of a U.N. sustainable energy program said on Monday.

“Without it, the U.N.’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative will have difficulty meeting goals of ensuring universal energy access, doubling the world’s share of renewable energy and doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030, Kandeh Yumkella, co-head of the initiative, told Reuters.

“You can’t save the forest if you don’t have gas,” Yumkella, a native of Sierra Leone, said in an interview on the sidelines of a global development meeting in Rio de Janeiro.

“It’s one of the solutions we need to reduce deforestation and reduce the two million people who die every year because of indoor air pollution because they use firewood.”

Curbing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting the world’s forestlands, and delivering dispatchable power to people and places around the world in desperate need of it — natural gas clearly has the potential to play a versatile role as a reliable and clean-burning energy source.  So clean, in fact, that British Columbia Premier Christy Clark declared that natural gas is to be considered a source of clean energy when used for liquefied natural gas (LNG).  And according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the increased use of natural gas in the United States may be the single largest factor in America’s greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions. As Interational Business Times Green Economy reports:

“{GHG} emissions in the US and EU dropped, 1.7% and 1.9% respectively. The warm winter helped, and the sluggish economy was certainly a factor, but the biggest change was the drop in coal use in favor of natural gas.

“The replacement of coal by shale gas is a key factor and what happened in the U.S. could very well happen in China and other countries and could definitely help in reducing CO2 emissions,” says International Energy Agency (IEA) chief economist Fatih Birol.”

And yet, despite the obvious and incontrovertible scientific case in support of natural gas use, activists who typically claim they support cleaner energy now appear increasingly to be opposed to natural gas development.  Friends of the Earth has already critiqued the United Nations for its “bias” in siding with “the industry,” a charge used so frequently by opposition groups that one has to wonder if the groups leveling the charge actually believe it or are simply too beaten back by the facts to levy any other critique.

The most infamous group trying to stop natural gas development is the Sierra Club, which has even changed its own tune to follow the money oppose natural gas. As a recent New York Post piece highlights:

“The Sierra Club, for one, helped fund a breakthrough study at the Green Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon University that concluded that shale gas is a fantastic, low-carbon replacement fuel for higher-carbon-generating oil and coal. But now, abundant natural gas has made the alternative-energy industry economically uncompetitive. That — and the success of dishonest anti-fracking propaganda like the film “Gasland” — prompted an about-face.”

The Denver Post Editorial board also chimed in:

“We are dismayed that this group [the Sierra Club] is repositioning itself as an anti-gas group, going as far as to proclaim that it will lobby to stop all new gas-fueled power plants.

“It seems to us that as market conditions and technological advances have led to a boom in availibility of cheap natural gas, the backtracking is born of fear — fear that this nation will come to rely on this ‘transitional fuel’ as a long-term solution.

“We happen to support continued subsidies and favorable government policies for renewables, but we cannot condone efforts to beat back all natural gas development.

“First, the nation is ill-positioned to ‘leapfrog’ over gas to move into wholesale reliance on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Those are viable options to fulfill a growing portion of energy demands, but they can’t yet replace more reliable and often cheaper fossil fuels. Second, burning natural gas releases about half the emissions of coal. That is clearly an improvement.”

The goal of the Rio + 20 conference is to unite world leaders, government officials, NGOs and private sector participants to discuss how our world can “reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet.”  It’s refreshing to see that the United Nations – along with virtually every credible expert, scientist, and regulator – has stood up in support of this clean-burning energy resource. That natural gas development has the ability to stimulate economic growth, help the world’s poor, and improve the environment in which we all live represents yet another example of how organizations like the Sierra Club – through their deliberate actions to deny these facts – are putting themselves on the path to marginalization.


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