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In attacking Obama on climate, W.Va. leaders ignore natural gas

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's political leaders raced this week to attack President Obama's climate change plan and its potential impacts on the already declining coal business, but they didn't mention another key part of the administration's plan: strong support for continued growth in natural gas drilling, especially in places like the Marcellus Shale region.

During his landmark speech Tuesday at Georgetown University, Obama praised shale-gas drilling as a cheaper, cleaner fuel that can power the nation and create thousands of new jobs.

"It's the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future," Obama said.

The White House's 21-page climate plan adopts the natural gas industry's line that gas is a "bridge fuel" that generates fewer greenhouse gases and is ripe for replacing coal in power plants and gasoline or diesel as vehicle fuel.

Obama acknowledged that more needs to be done to make natural gas drilling safe for water supplies and surrounding communities. The president also noted the need to better control leaks of the potent greenhouse gas methane from natural gas production, an issue that scientists say urgently needs more attention before the drilling boom advances much more. However, the president still cited it -- along with renewable sources -- as providing "clean energy."

"Sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions," the president said in his speech Tuesday.

Obama's strong push on natural gas didn't sit well with everyone in West Virginia, where environmental groups say a new state drilling law is far too weak and questions persist about whether new gas-industry jobs are going to in-state residents or not.

"We look forward to a day when the administration sees fracked gas for what it is -- a fossil fuel of the past and a threat to public health," said Jim Kotcon, conservation chairman of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

As they push for more natural gas, drilling operators are increasingly using a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which shoots vast amounts of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break apart rock and release the gas. More frequently, this process also involves drilling down and then turning horizontally to access more gas reserves.

West Virginia business and political leaders are eager to expand this practice as companies seek to tap into the vast gas reserves contained in the Marcellus Shale, a formation that stretches across 95,000 square miles from Southern New York and into Eastern Ohio.

Between 2003 and 2011, West Virginia's natural gas production more than doubled to nearly 400 million cubic feet. Over roughly the same period, employment in the industry increased by 55 percent, to more than 10,000.

In other contexts, West Virginia's elected leaders are quick to promote natural gas, saying it can help make the state and nation "energy independent" while creating jobs and boosting local economies. However, in their news release responding to Obama's speech, all five members of West Virginia's congressional delegation avoided mentioning the president's support for natural gas.

When natural gas is talked about as a way to reduce greenhouse emissions, it reveals the uncomfortable fact that the gas boom and its low prices -- more than tougher federal environmental regulations -- are at the heart of the troubles facing the Appalachian coal industry.

Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, said the state's political leaders are put in an awkward spot when confronted with how natural gas is edging out coal in the marketplace.

"You can't simply push 100 percent for natural gas and 100 percent for coal," Boettner said. "There is no scenario out there where you're going to see a robust production of West Virginia coal and natural gas from the shale formations. They are competing in the marketplace."

The Obama plan notes, for example, that natural gas has increased its share of electricity generation in recent years, and promises to "promote fuel-switching from coal to gas for electricity production."

Nationally, natural gas lobby groups generally praised the parts of Obama's speech that "again recognized the benefits of natural gas as an American source of energy that is clean, reliable and affordable."

West Virginia-based natural gas groups, though, weren't exactly on board with what the president had to say.

Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said his group doesn't necessarily want to see natural gas replace coal in power plants. Instead, DeMarco said, his members support efforts to export more natural gas and to use their product as a fuel for trucks and cars.

"We have said all along that West Virginia is a state that is rich in natural resources, and we ought to use all of the natural resources we have," DeMarco said.

James Van Nostrand, a West Virginia University law professor who studies energy policy, said it's not necessarily a surprise that the state's political leaders focused solely on the Obama climate plan's impact on coal.

"The state doesn't really see itself as a natural gas state," VanNostrand said Wednesday. "It sees itself as a coal state."

He said the president's comments about natural gas could be seen as an opportunity.

"That's a beneficial thing for West Virginia," Van Nostrand said. "We're fortunate that we have natural gas to fall back on."

Still, Van Nostrand and other experts caution that West Virginia's energy sector and its broader economy should not think that dealing with climate change is as simple as transitioning from coal to natural gas.

Natural gas jobs aren't necessarily in the same parts of West Virginia as coal jobs, and while natural gas pays well, its average wages aren't as high as those paid to coal miners.

To succeed in a clean-energy economy, West Virginia will need other efforts that focus on things like energy efficiency, increased renewable production and further diversifying the overall statewide economy, experts say.

"While the state is experiencing a boom in natural gas production from the development of the Marcellus Shale in the northeastern part of the state, the southern part of the state is projected to witness a steep decline in coal production," Boettner's group said in a report last year. "To compensate for the loss of good-paying jobs in the coal industry, the state will need to transition by developing clearer economic development and diversification strategies in the southern coalfields that will build a more sustainable economy."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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