Gulf oil spill helps put a cap on climate-change debate over using more natural gas

As the EPA and Congress move toward emission caps on utility power plants, the coal and gas industries launch a PR war against each other. Which one is greener? Neither, and that shouldn't be lost in the climate-change debate.

Flames from the intentional burning of natural gas are seen after the April 20 explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

One upside to the BP oil spill is that it has forced Congress to consider an energy bill, one that might include a cap on emissions from fossil fuels burned in utility power plants.

But there’s another silver lining: The expected slowdown in offshore drilling from the Gulf disaster has cast doubts over rising hopes for using more natural gas as a half-way solution for climate change.

Both natural gas and oil are abundant in deep-sea wells. And estimates for US gas reserves have soared with discoveries of gas locked in underground shale. In power plants, gas releases about half the carbon dioxide emissions as coal. That makes gas look like a “greener” (if not green) solution to global warming.

The promise for gas as easy way out for utilities that now burn coal has opened a new side battle in Washington between the coal and gas lobbies. The two industries have launched PR wars to tout the benefits of their respective fuels (coal is cheaper and a big job creator while gas is cleaner), and the demerits of the other (coal is dirtier while gas is more expensive).

The pressure for making a choice is coming largely from the Environmental Protection Agency, which plans tougher rules for power plants to cut carbon emissions.

Both MIT and Congressional Research Service have weighed in for gas with major studies. The CRS, for instance, says the US could emit one-fifth fewer emissions of greenhouse gases if older coal-fired plants were replaced with natural gas facilities. The coal industry responds by citing studies on how coal-burning plants might become cleaner with technology that can capture carbon and bury it underground.

This is a debate worthy of Nero’s Rome.

As the world needs quick and drastic solutions to global warming, Washington is fiddling over choosing one fossil fuel over another, as if the climate-change debate is a zero-sum game over the lesser of two evils.

The BP spill offers an opportunity to say, whoa, let’s remember that the global energy future should truly look carbonless green, starting with greater efficiency, renewable sources, and, yes, nuclear power.

Lest we forget, the flare-off from natural gas wells burns yellow or blue, but not green.

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