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Commentary

United States would be wise to take full advantage of the natural-gas boom

TBO.com The Washington Post
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 09:20 PM

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"The natural-gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence," President Obama declared in his State of the Union address. "That's why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits."

The president is right. The United States sits atop seas of natural gas, a fuel that drives electric turbines, warms homes, heats water and even powers some big trucks. Much of this gas is in unconventional deposits that drillers have only begun to tap. Now that they have, the price of the fuel has plummeted and the United States has gone from a gas importer to a potential exporter, with decades of supply left.

Natural gas also burns cleaner than coal, which had been the dominant fuel used in electricity generation until the vast new gas fields opened up. Burning gas produces substantially less carbon dioxide, the main driver of global warming, than does coal, and it doesn't pollute the air with coal's toxic cocktail of particulates and gases. Turning off coal-fired power plants while ramping up gas-burning facilities is one of the trends behind the recent drop in U.S. carbon emissions — the EPA just announced that power-plant emissions dropped 4.6 percent in 2011 alone.

The country can't use natural gas forever, because it still produces some carbon dioxide. But gas can, for a time, serve as a low-cost alternative to dirtier fossil fuels in a program to steadily green the economy. Particularly when combined with a smart climate policy, such as a carbon tax, the availability of lots of natural gas is a national blessing.

But extracting unconventional gas is controversial, in part because it involves "fracking" — pumping a mixture of water and other substances deep underground to fracture rock formations, freeing trapped gas. Environmentalists have mobilized against the practice, despite its potential to help reduce carbon emissions.

While praising the energy boom for all its benefits, Obama also has concluded that reasonable new regulations could make extracting gas much cleaner, and his administration has gone about writing them. One of them, from the EPA, would require that drillers prevent pollutants from escaping into the air during extraction, addressing one of the activists' primary criticisms. More Democrats should take after their leader.

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