The following was printed Sunday April 3rd in the Inquirer:
Americans looking at the headlines over the last year must believe no good energy news exists.
Stories about the Japanese nuclear crisis, the BP oil spill, skyrocketing oil prices, and the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia have dominated the news. Add the thousands of Americans who are sickened annually by breathing pollution from old coal plants, and there seems to be no hopeful case.
The health damage done by mercury, soot, smog, and other pollution from mainly old coal-fired plants is tragic and expensive. One out of six women has elevated levels of mercury that can reduce the IQ of babies as a result of eating fish contaminated with mercury. The smog and soot cause up to 36,000 premature deaths each year and hundreds of thousands of illnesses.
Yet two recent events are powerful good energy news. Massive, new gas supplies end all excuses to operate old coal plants with limited pollution control, and the Environmental Protection Agency acted March 16 to strengthen rules limiting toxic pollution from power plants.
Despite the bonanza of cleaner-buring natural gas, the one-third of American coal plants that are more than 40 years old and cause most of our nation's most serious power plant pollution are still operating. These plants should clean up, refuel with gas, or close.
Some say running old, polluting power plants is the price needed to keep the lights on and electricity affordable. That narrative now is demonstrably false, thanks to the supply of natural gas that can slash air pollution levels affordably and quickly. Natural gas emits no mercury, virtually no soot, and less of the other pollutants that sicken people and cause acid rain and climate change.
America's reserves of natural gas are rocketing upward, doubling in 2010 to the most in 35 years as a result of the shale gas boom. Natural gas production itself last year was the highest since 1973.
Fortuitously, the world's second-largest gas field, the Marcellus, which runs under portions of West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York sits under many of the 40, 50, 60 year old plants that the EPA toxic rule targets. In the last 6 months of 2010, Pennsylvania had more than 1,100 Marcellus wells producing gas, with the most prolific one providing an incredible 2.6 billion cubic feet in six months, or enough for 26,000 homes for a year.
The new gas supplies have also smashed the link between oil and gas prices in the United States. The Brent oil price benchmark has jumped 45 per cent, while natural gas has fallen 20 per cent in 12 months and 70 per cent in 3 years.
The sharply lower prices for natural gas equal lower heating bills for the 51% per cent of homes using gas, plus lower wholesale electricity prices, because 24% of our electricity comes from natural gas plants. Lower gas and electricity bills ensure that oil-price increases do not become a broad energy shock to our economy.
Building electric-charging stations and natural gas fuelding stations should be a national priority so domestic gas supplies can reduce the 70% of the oil that America imports.
Industrial processes like coal mining, oil production and gas drilling must be strongly regulated to reduce environmental impacts. But coal and oil production cause more impact than gas drilling. Just one oil well in the Gulf devastated it. Mountaintop mining in Appalachia alone has "removed" 500 mountaintops and buried 1,200 miles of streams.
Gas is not a perfect answer to all our energy woes. Renewables, energy conservation, and technological innovation must also be encouraged and accelerated.
But the huge new gas supplies and the EPA's stronger air-pollution rules wil make America healthier, clearner and more competitive. Good news, indeed.