Government Focuses on Natural Gas for US Energy Future

From left to right: Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Nancy Sutley, principal environmental advisor to President Obama, Phil Weiser, dean of CU-Boulder's Law School, and Patty Limerick, director of the Center of the American West, chaired a town hall meeting about the environmental aspects of President Obama's State of the Union address. Boulder, Co. Jan. 27, 2011. (Photo/Brendon Bosworth).

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama made it clear that further expansion of natural gas drilling is a key part of the government’s vision for America’s energy economy.

“We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years,” said Obama. “And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.”

Speaking at a town hall meeting at CU-Boulder’s Wittemyer Courtroom Friday, Nancy Sutley, principal environmental advisor to President Obama, touted the government’s commitment to expanding natural gas development as playing a vital role in the transition to a new energy economy. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Phil Weiser, dean of CU-Boulder’s Law School, and Patty Limerick, director of the Center of the American West, joined Sutley in chairing the meeting.

“Some have said the United States could be the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” Sutley told the crowd. Cheap natural gas is generally very good for the economy and, as the president talked about, the U.S. is not going to cede leadership in this area to other countries, she said.

While greater reliance on natural gas as a fuel source has the ability to bring down energy costs and decrease greenhouse gas pollution, the federal government has to engage with states, communities and industry to ensure that natural gas exploration is done safely, she said.

Weiser also stressed the need for federal oversight. “Better than having lots of communities say ‘I don’t trust fracking I want to have a ban on any fracking’ — this technology that’s integral to natural gas — there’s an important discussion about what rules are necessary to protect public health,” he said.

In many cases, those in the natural gas industry are willing to cooperate because they have a long-term interest in a sustainable regulatory regime, he said.

As the president announced Tuesday, companies that drill for gas on public lands will soon be required to disclose the list of chemicals they use in the hydraulic fracturing process, which involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the earth to release gas and oil harbored deep underground. Texas and Colorado recently passed state laws that require such disclosure. The new laws will take effect in Texas in February and in Colorado in April.

During the question and answer session, Alice Madden, the Wirth Chair in Sustainable Development at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs, raised concerns about how a focus on natural gas expansion, and the affordability of natural gas, could detract from efforts to promote and sustain the development of renewable energy technologies.

A failure to renew the production tax credit available to wind energy companies (which expires at the end of the year), as well the tax credit for other renewables, could lead to a loss of jobs in the renewable energy industry, she said.

In his address, the president called for the creation of a clean energy standard and an extension of manufacturing and production tax credits for the renewables industry, Sutley replied. “We’re hopeful that congress will act on that,” she said.