CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Earlier this month, when business boosters, community organizers and labor advocates gathered to brainstorm about diversifying the economy in West Virginia's coalfields, one alternative was mentioned over and over: The boom in natural gas production in the Marcellus Shale region of the state.
Over the past decade, West Virginia's natural gas production has more than doubled. Jobs in the industry have jumped by 55 percent.
The natural gas boom here and across the nation has brought climate change benefits. The continuing switch by power plant owners from coal to natural gas -- along with dramatic increases in renewable power generation -- has helped reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. electricity sector to their lowest levels since 1994.
West Virginia political leaders tout natural gas as the state's energy and economic future. They say the jobs will keep coming, and that spin-off businesses from natural gas production will eventually revitalize the state's chemical-making industry.
President Obama is targeting greenhouse emissions from coal-fired power plants as part of his plan to combat climate change. The administration has warmly embraced the natural gas boom, citing the switch from coal to gas for electricity generation as one way to combat climate change.
However, despite some recent hopeful study results, questions continue about global warming pollution from natural gas. Some recent studies emphasize that gas might not be the best long-term climate solution.
As with coal, experts say any desire to continue using natural gas long into the future needs to include plans to widely deploy carbon capture and storage, or CCS, technology on power plants.
For now, West Virginia leaders may focus on natural gas as an economic savior but, before too long, they might have to face the same questions about the industry's greenhouse emissions as they are now confronting about coal.
In one new report, the Union of Concerned Scientists warned that continued increases in the use of natural gas for electricity generation too far into the future carries with it the risk of the worst consequences of climate change.
"An electricity future with greater use of natural gas and increasing carbon emissions is clearly the wrong path for the United Sates," Steve Clemmer, director of energy research for UCS, wrote in explaining his group's report.
On Friday, the world's scientists issued their latest report summarizing the state of knowledge about global warming. In its fifth assessment of the science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said warming of the planet is "unequivocal." The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the group said. Snow and ice have diminished, the sea levels have risen and the concentration of greenhouse gases continues to increase.
The IPCC said it is "extremely likely" -- scientists are 95 percent or more certain -- that "human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century."
"Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system," the IPCC said in a 36-page summary report for policymakers. "Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions."
For years, the conventional wisdom was that natural gas was a good alternative to coal, producing half the carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy when burned in a power plant. However, natural gas itself is mostly methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and the conventional thinking didn't take into account methane emissions during the process of drilling for, producing and transporting natural gas.