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Natural Gas: Good for the Economy, Good for the Environment

From a perspective of more than three decades of experience in energy program management and regulation, I can truly appreciate the incredible technological and regulatory strides our country has made. And looking back at some of the challenges encountered during my first years of work at the Department of Energy in the 1970s, I marvel at how we’ve met and far surpassed expectations.

Since 1970, the total U.S. population has grown by 42%, GDP has grown by 195%, and energy consumption has increased 178%. Yet between 1970 and 2005, our energy intensity and our emission of six principal air pollutants decreased by 53%. Additionally the number of our lakes, rivers, and streams that meet state quality goals is up 33% from 30 years ago.

Early environmental laws and regulations established by federal, state, and local governments deserve a major part of the credit for this dramatic increase in energy efficiency and environmental quality. And our economy played an important role too.

As one Department of Interior analyst observed, “Cleaner air is a direct consequence of better technologies and the enormous and sustained investments that only a rich nation could have sunk into developing, installing, and operating these technologies.”

Natural gas provides an excellent case study of this effect.

Technological advances, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, have opened up vast new supplies of affordable natural gas. As a result, the cost dynamics of natural gas projects have changed as well — leading to greater use of natural gas powered buses to improve air quality in cities, conversion away from old, outdated, inefficient coal power generation towards cleaner natural gas plants, and a better economic profile for renewable energy projects that rely on natural gas as a back-up power source.

Not only has investment in shale gas risen to record levels, but the natural gas industry now employs more of our citizens than ever before. That’s especially good news at a time when the national unemployment rate holds at a staggering 16.7% for African Americans.

In addition to making natural gas a more cost effective, more job creating industry, proactive leadership by state regulators and advances in production technologies have also made natural gas development through hydraulic fracturing an even more environmentally friendly. Natural gas companies now drill multiple wells at single location to reduce the footprint of development, while new regulations have drastically improved water recycling efforts to minimize waste.

Smarter regulation of the industry’s operation and better technology has won over a number of environmental advocates as well. Frank Matzner of the Natural Resources Defense Council said of natural gas in 2010, “we need to look at ways in which we can reduce our carbon footprint now and it’s appealing that it has a smaller footprint” than traditional methods of oil and gas extraction. Others, like Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, view natural gas development as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional methods: “Natural gas is an excellent example of a fuel that can be produced in quite a clean way, and shouldn’t be wasted.”

While the record speaks for itself, it’s important that we continue to support environmental improvement while also trumpeting the benefits of natural gas development. The balance between these forces has been the driver of U.S. progress in the past and can ensure continued advancement toward a healthier, more environmentally and economically sustainable future.

As our national demand increases over the next several decades, technological advances coupled with proficient, competent regulation is important to our energy security and a prosperous future.

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