Comment: Why climate bill provides for natural gas pipeline

The legislation recognizes natural gas’ ability to help the U.S. make a clean energy transition.

By Matthew Yglesias / Bloomberg Opinion

While most of progressive Washington has celebrated the announcement of the Inflation Reduction Act, at least one left-wing gadfly isn’t having it. “A pipeline?” asked Nina Turner on Twitter last week. “In a climate bill? It’s not a climate bill.”

Turner, a former state senator from Ohio and co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, is referring to provisions of the IRA that would all but guarantee the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline between Virginia and West Virginia. (The proposal also includes some broader reforms that would generally make it harder to block pipeline construction.) And while Turner’s view that this provision invalidates the entire bill is very eccentric — essentially every mainstream environmental group has said that the legislation is, on balance, very good — her specific opposition to the construction of new pipelines is very mainstream.

It’s also very wrong.

The fundamental issue is that, at current margins, natural gas is a better option than many environmentalists would care to admit. That’s not because the gas itself is clean (though it is cleaner than coal and oil), but because it nicely complements renewable wind and solar power. Technological progress has made these sources of power cheap on a per-kilowatt-hour basis; when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and when the panels or turbines are optimally placed for sunshine or wind.

Gas plants have the convenient property of being easy to turn on and off. So a grid with plenty of gas attached to it can run mostly from wind and sunshine, with gas being provided on calm or cloudy days to ensure reliability. This mix of cheaper-than-ever renewables with cheap gas helped bring about large reductions in American carbon dioxide emissions over the past 15 years, helping to drive many coal plants out of business and making the air much cleaner.

But the world is still not done with coal and oil. The United States still has more than 200 coal-fired power plants. Oil is widely used to keep houses warm in the Northeast. And beyond U.S. borders, Europeans are actually re-opening coal plants as Russia shuts off supplies of natural gas. Increasing the flow of supplies from the Marcellus shale to the Northeast, as well as using the Atlantic coast LNG terminals to ship gas to Europe, will make the energy mix cleaner, not dirtier.

That’s mostly a second-order effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the geopolitical angle is exactly what makes trying to address climate change through restrictions on the supply side so misguided.

Given that pollution is genuinely very bad — both in terms of its global climate impact and the localized impact of air particulates — it’s often the case that restraining fossil-fuel consumption is worth the cost. That’s true whether it’s done through a formal pricing mechanism such as a carbon tax, or through something like the EPA’s Clean Air Act authority, under which new rules are subject to cost-benefit analysis.

Under normal circumstances, however, blocking one cubic meter of gas production does not reduce consumption by one cubic meter, because much of the lost gas is simply obtained from some other slightly-higher-cost source. So the domestic economy ends up paying a large price in foregone production in exchange for a tiny reduction in pollution. Meanwhile, bad actors such as Russia gain revenue and leverage.

Environmentalists will argue, rightly, that to meet global emissions goals, the world eventually needs to move to zero or even negative emissions, and that is incompatible with the current natural gas infrastructure. But the painful truth is that there is not yet the technical capacity to do this in a way that is compatible with continued global economic growth.

What there is, mercifully, is technology that can generate very large reductions in emissions. That means replacing virtually all current use of liquid fossil fuels with electricity while simultaneously eliminating all use of coal and oil to generate electricity. Replacing coal-fired power plants and gasoline-fueled cars with renewable energy — supported by gas — is both economically feasible and environmentally advantageous. Some places even have enough hydroelectrical resources that they can do without gas entirely and build a genuinely zero-carbon grid.

For most of the world, though, getting to zero emissions will require a technological breakthrough. That could mean advanced nuclear (which I am enthusiastic about, as it is compact and can go anywhere), or it could mean better batteries and long-term electrical storage (which many environmentalists are enthusiastic about). Advanced geothermal power could do the job. It’s also possible that the fossil fuel industry’s bet on carbon capture and sequestration will pan out, and the world will be able to keep burning gas.

Partisans of these rival technologies like to get into arguments about which of them is genuinely promising and which is vaporware. That’s why it’s smart of the Inflation Reduction Act to provide financial support for all of them. It also explains why some people have chosen this moment to criticize a pipeline.

Investing in the development of technologies that might make gas obsolete is great. So is regulating the consumption of gas to account for its pollution externalities. But removing Russian gas from world markets has made it harder for the world to meet its climate goals; and shown that the practical environmental impact of gas is less than many feared: With today’s technology, in today’s global economy, more gas means lower emissions, not higher. That’s why a pipeline absolutely does belong in a climate bill.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans.”

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