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Wirth Sees Role for Natural Gas in China Trade, Climate Bill

The natural gas industry has a role to play in two of the biggest issues on the world stage right now, climate change and trade negotiations with China, and they're blowing it away, according to a longtime natural gas advocate and Washington insider.

"The discovery and use of natural gas is an American industry; we ought to be exporting that industry," said former Sen. Tim Wirth, currently head of the United Nations Foundation. "The Chinese are dying for discussions and deals related to technology. The two most important worries for them right now are technology transfer and finance."

Calling it this country's "most important geopolitical relationship," Wirth noted that President Obama would be going to China in November for further trade talks. "Dealing with the Chinese, you should have some trump in your hand. If the natural gas industry really plays in this, they could be a major supporter of what the United States wants to do and should be doing." The former senator from Colorado spoke on a broadcast aired on the website for Clean Skies, an environmental group, and in an interview with NGI.

Technology transfer for the U.S. natural gas industry could involve the processes surrounding development of shale gas, as well as other areas such as storage and pipeline construction where North American has a head start, having fine-tuned natural gas development and delivery over the last 100 years.

"Where is the natural gas community in all these negotiations? Why are they doing nothing? To me this is yet another opportunity that is being frittered away by that industry and by the United States," Wirth said. "This is U.S. technology; it's a real opportunity and the industry is letting it slide away."

On the climate change issue "natural gas, wind and solar should be a team," working on legislation going forward in the U.S. Congress, Wirth said. "If the gas industry doesn't get itself together, all we'll be doing is carbon capture and sequestration from the perspective of coal-fired power plants." The industry lost out in the climate change legislation that passed the House earlier this year, the Waxman-Markey bill, but still has a chance to make it up in a Senate version (see NGI, June 29).

The industry picked up a vote of confidence Thursday from the Worldwatch Institute, a top environmental research organization, whose chairman said "natural gas should be a cornerstone of strategies to advance energy security and reduce the threat of climate change." This other fossil fuel "has recently emerged as a vital but neglected complement" to renewable energy and energy efficiency."

Despite this type of overture from environmental groups recently (after they realized coal supporters won round one), the natural gas industry has failed to get involved in the lawmaking process. While natural gas industry executive members of the America's Natural Gas Alliance held a press briefing in Washington recently to "educate" lawmakers on the benefits of natural gas, (see NGI, Sept. 21) "they didn't say they were really going to work to get a bill passed, that they were going to put their shoulders behind it," Wirth said.

"They ran a lot of ads for natural gas, but what are they doing to advance it? Talking is one thing and doing is another. You don't get natural gas out of the ground by talking about it; you do the work; you don't get legislation passed by talking about it; you do the work. I just don't get it. I don't understand who these people are representing and why they're not involved in this when it's so obviously good for the industry; they're on another planet."

Wirth was alluding to the difference between public relations, such as testifying in a televised committee hearing or holding press conferences, and some of the background lobbying work. Besides hosting some social functions, serious lobbying groups typically have a crew of Washington reps making the rounds of the congressional offices. These reps provide research studies when requested by congressional staff who don't have the time or budget to research the myriad issues themselves. They also are always on call for endless unofficial conferences, sometimes for years, among staff and representatives of various interest groups, state and local governments and federal agencies over different points as a prospective law wends its way through the Congress.

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