published Thursday, August 1st, 2013

Sierra Club calls Obama soft on natural gas

President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Mo., in this file photo.
President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Mo., in this file photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

President Barack Obama says he’s pushing for a greener future, but conservationists say in his last term the president should be pushing a little harder.

During a speech Tuesday at the Amazon fulfillment center in Chattanooga, Obama pledged to step up government incentives for renewable energy and continue to make the coal industry uncomfortable. The purpose: “reducing energy costs, reducing dangerous carbon pollution, and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.”

That sounds good to Sierra Club Tennessee Conservation Chairman Scott Banbury.

But Obama also lauded the natural gas industry as a job creator and a cleaner energy option.

“Now is not the time to gut the investments in American technology that have brought us to this point; now is the time to double down on renewables, and biofuels and electric vehicles, and the research that will shift our cars and trucks off oil for good,” Obama said. “And since the cheaper cost of natural gas is a huge boost to our businesses, we should develop even more, as long as we do it in a way that protects our air and water for our children and future generations.”

Natural gas is the sticking point with Banbury. And he’s keenly interested in specifics of the “protects our air and water” part when it comes to fracking, a method of releasing natural gas by cracking bedrock with pressurized gas, water and chemicals.

“Tennessee’s chapter of the Sierra Club is opposed to fracking right now based on the fact that nobody has yet to offer any regulatory system that assures we are not going to have groundwater contamination or egregious habitat fragmentation,” Banbury said.

Early this month, Obama announced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would launch separate efforts to crack down on air pollution created by coal-fired power plants, and he said natural gas was a bridge fuel for more sustainable energy.

Even as a “bridge fuel” to wean the country off oil, the Sierra Club’s state chapter will not support natural gas mining, Banbury said.

“It’s a bridge to nowhere. It’s still fossil fuel, we’re still contributing to climate change. [Natural gas] may burn cleaner than coal, but there is still so much fugitive release of methane,” Banbury said. “Natural gas isn’t going to help climate problems, then you have water quality contamination and usage from fracking.”

Alice Demetreon also has an issue with Obama’s endorsement of fracking. She traveled from Whitwell, Tenn., Tuesday to protest the practice.

“They call it a bridge fuel, but it’s not a bridge, it’s a gangplank,” Demetreon said of natural gas. “I applaud Obama for looking into the issue, but I hope it’s not just political show.”

But Cathy St. Clair, a spokeswoman for Pittsburgh-based coal and natural gas producer CONSOL Energy, says improvements in hydraulic fracturing are increasing efficiency and minimizing environmental damage.

“Horizontal drilling reduces environmental impact by allowing a smaller footprint above ground since multiple wells can be drilled from the same pad,” St. Clair said.

St. Claire also says drilling happens deep underground, never touching groundwater levels.

“There have been no documented cases of harm to groundwater tied to hydraulic fracturing. In fact, the EPA, the Groundwater Protection Council and the U.S. Geologic Survey have all testified before Congress that there is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing poses any risk to groundwater quality,” she said.

On the energy-producing end, Dave Scanzoni, a spokesman for Duke Energy, the largest electric power producer in the nation, says natural gas is cleaner than coal.

“Definitely gas is in favor right now. Because of the environmental issues. It still produces carbon but about half the amount of coal,” he said.

There’s not much danger in natural gas completely replacing coal or petroleum as the power source of choice, because the prices are too volatile.

“That’s the wild card with natural gas, and one of the dangers of becoming too dependent on natural gas, it exposes consumers and the country to the spikes in the gas prices,” Scanzoni said.

Banbury was pleased to hear Obama touting more federal incentives for solar and wind power, programs the local Sierra Club hopes to see expanded by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

But the authority’s plan for renewables isn’t quite as robust as Banbury hopes.

TVA spokesman Duncan Mansfield said Wednesday TVA looks to provide incentives to drive renewable power sources, but “at some point, incentives become subsidies.”

“TVA continues to pursue a balanced energy portfolio, but we also have to be mindful of our desire for low-cost energy. We are continuing to pursue renewables and offer options to customers, but it’s really about incentives,” Mansfield said.

The authority has wind and solar programs, but Mansfield said Wednesday they make up less than 1 percent of all power generation. But hydro-electric power generated from the authority’s dams make up about 10 percent, he said.

The bulk of TVA’s generation comes from its nuclear and coal-fired plants.

Representatives from the Tennessee Oil & Gas Association did not return phone calls for comment Wednesday.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at 423-757-6481 or at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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