Obama shows support for natural gas

By JACOB FISCHLER, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE, Written for UPI  |  Oct. 26, 2012 at 9:41 AM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama, in a plan for his second term released this week, is touting the economic benefits of natural gas in a way he never did four years ago as a candidate.

The shift reflects a new political reality -- prices are down for natural gas and jobs are up -- that is causing the United States' "green president" to embrace a changing power landscape.

"He didn't see this coming at all but you should say that most people didn't see it coming," said William S. Peirce, professor emeritus of economics at Case Western University. "It happened so quickly that the administration didn't have time to oppose it."

The economic rationale outlined in the plan is a change from four years ago when Obama was more focused on the environmental impact of energy policy. But with the economy top of mind for voters, and the natural gas industry providing a welcome boost, Obama has embraced natural gas production.

The price of natural gas hit a 10-year low in March, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said, buoyed by hydraulic fracturing, which is also called fracking.

"The drilling boom and the associated beginnings of construction of new plants will certainly help him in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania," Peirce said.

Though he may not deserve much of the credit, Obama stands to benefit from the bump natural gas has given to economies in those key swing states.

The campaign pamphlet released this week, "The New Economic Patriotism: A Plan for Jobs and Middle-Class Security," is being touted in a national ad campaign as a jobs plan. As in the presidential debates between Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, many of the environmental buzzwords from 2008 -- climate change, global warming -- are absent from the document.

Instead, the plan focuses on the economic benefits of energy innovation.

"President Obama's plan will grow America's piece of the global clean energy market, creating well-paying jobs here at home, including 600,000 in natural gas alone," the document states.

The natural gas industry is enjoying support from both U.S. presidential candidates.

Though Daniel Whitten, vice president of strategic communications for America's Natural Gas Alliance, an advocacy group, said he was glad to have Obama's support, he also said he expects Romney would be a natural gas ally.

"We are pleased that both President Obama and Governor Romney have said that clean, abundant, American natural gas is an important aspect of their energy plans," Whitten said. "Natural gas has numerous energy security, environmental and economic benefits that make it a truly bipartisan solution to our growing energy needs."

The energy plan on Romney's website makes little mention of natural gas, except to advocate it be used as part of a "diverse range of fuels" to be used in transportation.

"I'm going to take advantage of our energy resources: Oil, coal, gas, nuclear, renewables, wind, solar. North America will be energy independent by the last year of my second term," Romney said at an August campaign event in Little Rock, Ark.

In addition to creating jobs, the expanding natural gas industry raises environmental concerns.

"Natural gas is not a bridge to a clean-energy economy; renewable energy is a bridge to a clean-energy economy," said Daniel Kessler, media campaigner for 350.org, a non-profit group fighting climate change.

Kessler said he's concerned about the Obama administration's embrace of an industry that, in his view, hasn't adequately addressed dangers in its production process.

Natural gas is a problem, Kessler said, because of leakage that occurs during drilling that sends methane gas into the atmosphere.

It also "crowds out renewables within our energy infrastructure," he said, keeping utilities from innovating.

The Environmental Integrity Project, along with 16 other advocacy groups, this week petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require companies doing hydraulic fracturing to disclose chemicals used in the process. The agency said it had received the petition and would "respond appropriately."

Peirce said the emphasis on natural gas isn't necessarily out of sync with Obama's priorities before becoming president. He counts natural gas as a clean energy, and said environmental concerns about hydraulic fracturing are the result of improper execution, not the process itself.

"There hasn't been any proof that fracking well-done is the problem," Peirce said.

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