Guest opinion: Don’t obscure myriad benefits of natural gas
December 2, 2016
The Glenwood Springs Post Independent editorial board recently referenced the value of local drilling and natural gas production within the narrow confines of creating electricity. The region's natural gas industry can win the debate over whether to drill or not by expanding this debate and disallowing narrow discussions about the fuels' importance. Only speaking about natural gas in relation to creating electrons misleads the public about what natural gas is actually used for and why its foundational to democratic society.
Many readers have probably noticed that many if not most media outlets generally speak about natural gas as a bridge fuel to the future. The "natural gas as a bridge fuel" narrative is a product promulgated by environmental groups. These advocates and their policy objectives benefit from cartoonishly, narrowly defining the value of natural gas in relation to wind and solar electricity.
The "bridge fuel" metaphor is hugely effective with the public because people like me have been hugely ineffective in communicating the broader merits of natural gas. Our industry hasn't made the case that natural gas matters beyond who creates the best and brightest and most morally acceptable electrons. But failure to adequately communicate in no way changes the fact that natural gas is foundational to the future I want for my children.
As outlined in the tremendous book. "The Alchemy of Air," all of America's food supply comes from natural gas. All nitrogen-based fertilizers come from natural gas. And places like California, which feed our state and the world, consume a whopping 900,000 nutrient tons of natural gas fertilizers each year. Nary an avocado, almond or apple has been grown this century whose nourishment didn't begin with the methane necessary for modern yield and efficient harvest. Natural gas is one of the products that allows for the bounty of our efficient and specialized economy. Ironically, natural gas is one of the key products that creates the affluence necessary for groups like Wildearth Guardians and the Wilderness Workshop to pay people six-figure salaries to fight our existence.
In ongoing debates about retroactive cancellation of Piceance Basin natural gas leases, often arguments are made that we will use natural gas only as a temporary fuel for creating electricity just until solar and renewables can take over. But such narrow value attribution fails to focus on the role the Piceance Basin plays in feeding and elevating the economic status of the world's poor.
Today there are more people in India and China without electricity than there are residents in the United States. And these people are much more interested in eating than basking in the revelry of farm-to-fork ostentation.
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Natural gas is never debated in terms of its global importance of nourishing human populations. This omission is likely because the question of whether to drill or not to drill in western Colorado might further shift out of activists' favor — especially when the end use for natural gas is seen as feeding starving children in Sudan rather than simply competing with wind and solar for who gets to keep the lights on in the Roaring Fork Valley or whose electrons heat gutters and sidewalks in Aspen.
Another stark reality that can't go unsaid: At nearly 2,300 therms of natural gas per single family residence, the upper Roaring for Valley uses a great deal more natural gas than the average 60 million U.S. homes that use the fuel for heating. Plus, somewhere near 100 percent of outdoor recreation gear and just about all U.S. consumer goods are manufactured with or made from natural gas products like ethane, propane and butane. Clothing, shoes, cars, shampoo, detergents and cell phones are all made from natural gas, just to name six examples among millions.
All of the world's metal alloys, not to mention the glassware and brewing processes, use natural gas. And so on goes the list of natural gas uses that have absolutely nothing to do with electricity.
When the merits of natural gas are debated in a proper framework, the debate about drilling in the Wolf Creek natural gas field and the southern Piceance Basin drastically changes from one simply about renewables or the environment into a more complex debate about wealth, demographics and intellectual honesty when it comes to who should or shouldn't drill for the products that sustain first world consumption.
How will solar panels melt iron ore and make steel? How will wind mills create fleece vests? How will wind make fertilizers needed to feed the world's hungry and how will solar heat the massive homes of the Roaring Fork Valley in the cloudy, stormy throws of February?
Natural gas is the world's most diverse, transportable and adaptable source of energy. Few energy sources can make this claim. We should drill for natural gas where it exists. We can and should use natural gas to create electricity but also use it for the infinite number of other irreplaceable end uses.
So our community should no longer justify and or celebrate the retroactive cancellation of leases (or the ongoing protest of future leases) based on simplistic narratives promulgated by the echo chambers of homogeneous affluence. We should no longer limit our production of natural gas to only communities at lower elevations by opaquely hiding political agendas behind the veneer of environmental issues. Let us instead grow our understanding about what natural gas is actually used for and why manufacturing natural gas matters to humanity.
David Ludlam is executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
Editor's note: Ludlam is right; the editorial originally was far too narrow in describing natural gas uses. The sentence in question has been edited online to acknowledge that omission. Our editorial position remains that stockpiles of natural gas are plentiful and can be reached in sufficiency without drilling in the Thompson Divide.