New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s Sunday piece highlighted a conversation he had a few weeks ago with President Obama, during which the president talked about energy and climate change. A few things stand out:

Realistic Policy

The president signaled that climate policy should consider the real-world roles that are being played by various energy sources, saying:

“… we’re not going to suddenly turn off a switch and suddenly we’re no longer using fossil fuels, but we have to use this time wisely, so that you have a tapering off of fossil fuels replaced by clean energy sources that are not releasing carbon.”

Sounds reasonable, given the forecast of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in its 2014 Annual Energy Outlook – that fossil fuels’ share of total U.S. energy use will be 80 percent in 2040, down only slightly from where it was in 2012 (82 percent). Oil and natural gas, which supplied 63 percent of the energy we used in 2012, are projected to supply 61 percent in 2040. Oil and natural gas are America’s energy today and tomorrow. EIA’s chart:

energy_use

Underlying those estimates – and, we suspect, the president’s comment – is the reality that safe and responsible oil and natural gas development is vital to a growing economy and Americans’ individual lives because oil and gas are available, reliable and efficient. They’re high in energy content, they’re portable and they’re versatile, especially considering the number of things made from petroleum products that make our lives safer and more comfortable.

Oil and natural gas are the bedrock of a sensible, all-of-the-above energy strategy – one that acknowledges our leading energy sources and fosters development of market-ready new sources, all of which are needed to meet expected increases in demand in the years ahead.  

Natural Gas and Emissions

The president and his administration have embraced natural gas as key to America’s energy future, even if the administration’s actions, especially on the regulatory front, have collided with some of its pro-development rhetoric. In his conversation with Friedman, the president was both laudatory and cautionary:

Natural gas “can be a blessing and a curse. Natural gas emits only half the carbon dioxide of coal when burned, but if methane leaks when oil companies extract it from the ground in a sloppy manner — methane is far more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — it can wipe out all the advantages of natural gas over coal.  … But right now what we’ve got to do is make sure that there are industry standards that everybody is observing.”

First, there already are industry standards and government regulations in place on natural gas development, covering everything from production to consumption. These include specific provisions dealing with advanced hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, the key to America’s natural gas surge and probably the president’s chief concern here. At the same time there’s wide industry awareness of the need to capture methane. It’s good for the environment, and the methane is a marketable commodity. Yet, somewhat contrary to the impression left by the president’s remarks on methane, data and research show the emissions are improving.

EPA’s most recent Inventory of Greenhouse Gases found that while natural gas production grew 37 percent from 1990 to 2012, methane emissions from natural gas systems fell 17 percent. Emissions from field production in recent years have fallen even more, declining 40.4 percent from 2006 to 2012, according to EPA.

The main reason is that companies are constantly improving containment during drilling and production. A University of Texas study last year found that methane losses at the wellhead were lower than previous estimates, suggesting that more attention should be given to municipal distribution lines. Howard Feldman, API’s director of regulatory and scientific affairs:

“Recent studies show emissions are far lower than EPA projected just a few years ago. Additional regulations are not necessary and could have a chilling effect on the American energy renaissance, our economy, and our national security. … Thanks in large part to innovations like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, America is leading the world in producing natural gas and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Regulation

The president told Friedman that natural gas regulation doesn’t necessarily have to be dictated by Washington, which parallels the position taken by Lisa Jackson, his former EPA administrator. Friedman’s column:

That doesn’t “necessarily mean that it has to be a national law,” he said. “You could have a series of states working together — and, hopefully, industry working together — to make sure that the extraction of natural gas is done safely.”

Cooperation between industry and state regulatory officials already is occurring. While industry is subject to a number of federal standards, the states are best positioned to manage primary regulatory efforts because of differences in geology, hydrology and other characteristics that affect energy development. Industry is working with state officials to help ensure safe and responsible development. Through the STRONGER organization industry, state regulators and other stakeholders work together to review and improve regulatory regimes.

America is in the midst of an energy revolution, thanks to plentiful shale reserves of oil and natural gas. With increased access to these reserves, a common-sense approach to regulation and policies that encourage safe and responsible development, this revolution can grow – creating jobs, helping our economy and making the U.S. safer in the world.