Increasing natural gas prices should not scare Congress into allowing greedy gas producers to drill willy-nilly across environmentally sensitive areas or areas currently blocked by drilling moratoria, environmentalists, ranchers, public interest groups and scientists said last Wednesday during a teleconference on the “real story behind the natural gas crisis.”

Instead, the nation should focus on energy efficiency, renewable energy and environmentally conscious drilling on already open lands, speakers said.

The teleconference was organized by the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), the Northern Plains Resource Council and The Wilderness Society a day prior to a Senate panel hearing on natural gas issues (see related story).

“Instead of promoting policies and legislation that will encourage more lands to be opened for energy development and fewer environmental safeguards, the real urgency is to make sure that we are not sacrificing the long-term psychological health and environmental value or last remaining wild lands for the short-term economic gain of the energy industry,” said Dave Alberswerth, director of the Bureau of Land Management Program for The Wilderness Society.

“Despite industry’s and their government allies’ claims that too much federal land is unavailable for development and too many restrictions apply to drilling on federal land, the Bush administration’s own report issued last January indicates that the opposite is true, that is, most of the federal oil and gas resources in the Rocky Mountain West are currently available to leasing and development,” Alberswerth said.

He cited an administration report released on Jan. 16 that indicates that 88% of the Rocky Mountain region’s technically recoverable natural gas resources are currently available for leasing and development. At the time of the report, producers charged that it was misleading because although a significant amount of land was classified as open to drilling the report failed to take into account the numerous other restrictions, hindrances and miscellaneous red tape producers must wade through in order to access those resources.

According to Alberswerth, “If non federal gas resources within this region of the country are included, fully 93% of the Rocky Mountain region’s natural gas resources are currently available for development.”

Alberswerth also noted that significant drilling increases already are taking place this year without opening any additional lands.

Anna Aurilio, legislative director of U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a national nonprofit nonpartisan consumer and environmental advocacy organization, charged that the natural gas industry is using the current gas market situation to call for overturning the existing moratoria when that would only provide a small amount of additional gas supply.

“The bottom line when it comes to offshore drilling is that 80% of the country’s undiscovered economically recoverable Outer Continental Shelf gas is located in the Central and Western Gulf of Mexico, which is not subject to Congressional or presidential moratoria so the vast majority of the gas is already available for extraction,” she said.

Simply studying the nation’s existing gas resource base to determine its size and location, as is proposed in the Senate energy bill, also would be harmful to the environment and is unnecessary, Aurilio said. It also would start to “undermine the current moratorium on exploration.

“The industry is claiming that it’s just a study, but it’s not just a study; it is using harmful exploration techniques, such as underwater seismic testing, which is akin to exploding artillery shells underwater. Recent studies show that off of Norway’s coast when these kinds of studies were done the fishing catch was depleted for five days following the explosions. We know these explosions can cause harm to fish and marine mammals. The inventories themselves are destructive. We also know that…their real agenda is to overturn the moratorium.

“Newspapers in North Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, New York and California have editorialized against this,” said Aurilio. “Economic interests in those states would much prefer to keep their white sandy beaches and tourist dollars than risk ruining that for a paltry amount of energy resources.”

Randy Udall, director of the Denver-based Community Office for Resource Efficiency, laid out the facts about the current gas supply situation and stated his belief that the nation should spend more time encouraging energy efficiency and renewable resources. “North America is never going to be self-sufficient in natural gas again,” he said. “The United States already is the world’s largest importer of natural gas, and I don’t think people realize that.

“Half of the nation’s gas now is coming from wells that are less than three years old… At least half of the gas that we are using today has to be replaced in the next three years,” said Udall. “Many people in the gas industry recognize what a challenge this is going to be. It’s going to require us to drill more wells in the United States. We need to expand our liquefied natural gas imports dramatically. Eventually we may need to build a pipeline to the gas in Alaska on the North Slope. In the short term the two things that we really need to be focused on are energy efficiency and renewable energy here at home.”

Alan Nogee, who represents the Union of Concerned Scientist in Cambridge, MA, said improving energy efficiency and developing renewable electricity resources are the “fastest, cheapest solutions and will improve the environment at the same time.”

Nogee cited studies that show that energy efficiency policies directed toward gas and power can reduce gas demand by more than 10% by 2020. “A substantial amount of these savings can be reaped in as little as six months to three years,” he said. “What’s needed is supplemental appropriations for existing conservation and efficiency programs such as the EnergyStar program, instead of the proposed cut in the EnergyStar budget of 30%. We need accelerated federal standards for appliances and federal matching funds for state efficiency programs. New efficiency performance standards for utilities can reduce electricity use by 1% per year. Improving efficiency in the electricity sector is critically important along with efficiency in the gas sector because power plants are the fastest source of increasing natural gas demand.”

Nogee also cited a recent study by Energy Information Administration (EIA) and his own organization that found that a policy to require utilities to increase their renewable electricity use can reduce natural gas demand by as much as 11% by 2020. “That’s 3.8 Tcf or about equal to three quarters of the natural gas consumed by U.S. households today.” The study also found that by reducing demand for natural gas, gas prices will fall by 9% if there is 20% renewable electricity penetration by the year 2020.

“That’s under relatively low gas price projections by the EIA, which forecasted gas prices averaging only about $3-3.50/MMBtu through that period,” said Nogee. “Under higher gas price projections, the gas price reductions and the savings would also significantly increase.

“We need extended production tax credits for wind and bioenergy resources, and expansion of those credits for geothermal, solar and new bioenergy sources,” he said. “We need to increase research and development funds by about 50% over the next five years. Most importantly we need a national renewable electricity standard for utilities of 10-20% by 2020 as proposed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman in the Energy Bill.”

Nogee said efficiency programs and more renewable energy use potentially could cut gas demand by 31% by 2020 and gas prices could be reduced by 27% over that period while consumers would save more than $400 per year in combined electricity and gas bills.

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