New science shows that thanks to methane leaks, gas won’t work as a “bridge fuel.”
—By Bill McKibben | Mon Sep. 8, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Obama: Charles Dharapak/AP; Methane: Michelangelus/Shutterstock
If you’re a politician, science is a bitch; it resists spin. And a new set of studies—about, of all things, a simple molecule known as CH4—show that President Obama’s climate change strategy is starting to unravel even as it’s being knit. To be specific: most of the administration’s theoretical gains in the fight against global warming have come from substituting natural gas for coal. But it looks now as if that doesn’t really help.
In a very real sense it’s not entirely the president’s fault. When Obama took office in 2008 he decided to deal with health care before climate change, in essence tackling the biggest remaining problem of the 20th century before teeing up the biggest challenge of the 21st. His team told environmentalists that they wouldn’t be talking about global warming, focusing instead on ‘green jobs.’ Obama did seize the opportunity offered by the auto industry bailout to demand higher mileage standards—a useful move, but one that will pay off slowly over the decades. Other than that, faced with a hostile Congress, he spent no political capital on climate.
But he was able nonetheless to claim a victory of sorts. His accession to office coincided (coincidentally) with the widespread adoption of hydraulic fracking to drill for natural gas, resulting in a sudden boom in supplies and a rapid drop in price, to the point where gas began to supplant coal as the fuel of choice for American power plants. As a result (and as a result of the recession Obama also inherited), the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions began to fall modestly.
For a political leader, it was the very definition of a lucky break: Without having to do much heavy lifting against the power of the fossil fuel industry, the administration was able to produce results. In fact, it gave Obama cover from the right, as he in essence turned the GOP chant of “Drill Baby Drill” into “Frack Baby Frack.” Not only that, the cheap gas was a boost to sputtering American manufacturing, making it profitable once again to make chemicals and other goods close to home. As Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address, as his re-election campaign geared up, “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly a hundred years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.”