I was fully prepared to hate this op-ed from T. Boone Pickens and Ted Turner, mainly because Pickens is kind of shady and I’m generally sick of rich old establishment white guys telling us how to transform our energy systems. However! It turned out to be pretty good — far better than what you normally see on the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

The one sticking point for greens will be the heavy focus on natural gas, a vexed topic that’s more and more central to climate policy conversations.

The politics of natural gas are extremely interesting. In a nutshell, the interests of coal utilities and natural gas executives are at odds. To the extent carbon is penalized and coal is phased out, natural gas wins.

Coal has dominated the development of ACES so far, securing tons of free permits and handouts, while natural gas has stood by, quiescent. Ex-senator Tim Wirth addressed a group of natural gas utility execs recently and told them to get off their asses and start lobbying for a stronger climate bill. They seem to be moving in that direction, trying to rally behind some concerted Senate lobbying.

Here, the American Gas Association’s Roger Cooper puts a good face on natgas’s presence in ACES:

I have no idea how it’s going behind the scenes, but at the very least natural gas is a lot more sexy these days. It was the subject of a high-profile Senate hearing recently. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has done everything but carry T. Boone around on a perfumed litter to spread his natural gas evangelism. (Says Reid, “I’ve been converted. I now belong to the Pickens church.” Yeah, I puked in my mouth a little too.)

Randy Udall has argued passionately on behalf of natural gas as a bridge climate solution. So has Robert Kennedy Jr. So has John Podesta.

The question for enviros: Is the enemy of our enemy our friend? Is it worthwhile to ally with the natgas industry to reduce the influence of coal and strengthen the climate bill?

To answer these questions, we need to look at the substantive roles being envisioned for natural gas. Pickens and Turner propose two.

Power plants

First:

Adopting a “cash-for-clunkers” program in the utility sector can save money and reduce emissions right away by retiring the oldest, least efficient and most polluting power plants in exchange for modern gas-powered plants. New coal plants should be required to combine natural gas with the coal they burn, resulting in cleaner emissions, and every power plant should meet strict carbon-emissions standards.

It’s good that the oldest coal plants — built in the 1950s and ’60s, grandfathered under the Clean Air Act, and responsible for a substantial chunk of total U.S. emissions — are back in the news. There was a great Washington Post piece on them (and how some might escape unscathed under ACES) this week. They also play a prominent role in Carl Pope’s account of the Clean Air Act’s original sin.

It’s true, as Sean Casten and Joe Romm have pointed out, that rapidly shifting the nation’s power dispatch from coal to gas would be the fastest way to reduce emissions in the short-term. Emissions from the average gas plant have plunged lately as new combined-cycle plants, which emit less than half the CO2 of the average coal plant, come online. (Meanwhile, average coal plant emissions are rising.)

As an added benefit, natural gas plants can be built more quickly than coal or nuke plants, smaller, and closer to load, enabling them to capture and use their waste heat. Natural gas can also be co-fired — with coal to immediately reduce emissions from coal plants; with biomass, which (with sequestration) could produce carbon-neutral or even negative power; and perhaps most intriguingly, with solar thermal.

Natural gas really does seem like an important tool when it comes to short- and mid-term reductions in the electricity sector. Efficiency — getting more power from less fuel — should be the top and overwhelming priority, but natgas can certainly help at the margins.

Vehicles

The second proposal:

In the transportation sector, renewable energy and natural gas can also be deployed immediately. … We can begin transitioning the nation’s fleet of 6.5 million 18-wheelers that run regular routes. It would take just 20 refueling stations along a single highway to get trucks from one coast to the other. Centrally fueled urban business and government fleets also can quickly move to natural gas.

This I’m not so sure about. It’s already a considerable walk-down from Pickens’ original plan; he has now embraced electricity for light-duty vehicles. But still it ignores that natural gas is vastly more energy efficient burned to make electricity than it is burned in internal combustion engines. And even if compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles produce lower emissions per unit of fuel than gasoline vehicles, there’s still an enormous energy penalty in gathering and compressing the fuel, which in the end yields a roughly equivalent environmental situation as gasoline. (Of course, Pickens doesn’t care about the environmental situation — he only cares where the fuel comes from — but the rest of us should care.)

I get that we’re not going to see electric buses or 16-wheelers any time soon, but all told, it seems ill-advised to build large new long-term infrastructure in the name of “transitioning.” Better a strategy focused on moving freight to rail while researching advanced biofuels for heavy-duty vehicles; for personal vehicles, there are better batteries and transit-oriented development.

Of course, if U.S. policymakers took both the Turner/Pickens proposals to heart, it would represent a massive increase in demand for natural gas. Is there enough to satisfy that demand?

Supply

It’s been conventional wisdom in progressive energy circles for a while now that domestic supplies of natural gas have plateaued and that the bulk of future supplies will come from overseas. But some new developments cast that into question. Craig A. Severance notes that just a couple months ago …

… the nonprofit Potential Gas Committee industry group, assisted by the Colorado School of Mines, released the results of its 2008 assessment, indicating a total increase of U.S. natural gas resources of 39% since its last assessment, for 2006. The report notes the new natural gas resource estimate is the “highest resource evaluation in the Committee’s 44-year history” — indicating the U.S.has far more resources of natural gas than previously considered.

That’s due to new discoveries and new technology that makes it easier to get at unconventional sources like shale. Others say the cost-effectiveness of getting at shale is speculative at best, and no one yet knows how much it will cost. We should have a much better idea of what’s available in two or three years.

Of course if domestic supplies don’t pan out, we can always revert to foreign sources in the short-term. Severance points out that “liquid natural gas (LNG) imports are being sold at incredibly low prices. With a glut of LNG terminal and tanker capacity, foreign producers now have the LNG loaded and ready to sell, and often are merely trying to cover their marginal costs of operation.”

Ultimately, the signs seem to point to plentiful supply and, at least in the short-term, fairly low prices.

Still, what about the environmental consequences of embracing a fossil fuel?

Oh, right, the environment

Many long-time enviros want nothing to do with natural gas. There’s worry that natural gas drilling endangers water supplies, in part thanks to the so-called Halliburton Loophole in the Safe Water Drinking Act, which exempts a technique called hydraulic fracturing from the law’s provisions. It’s the subject of lawsuits in Pennsylvania and protests in Texas right now. New York City has demanded a ban on natural gas drilling near upstate reservoirs, for fear of drinking water contamination. Legislation has been introduced to bring fracturing under federal rules.

As Udall himself admits:

The gas industry has not been gentle on Western landscapes — but climate change could be worse. So pick your poison. To displace coal with gas, we’d need to complete 30,000 to 40,000 new wells a year for decades to come.

Vastly expanded natural gas drilling would no doubt create more ecological sacrifice zones populated by the poor and powerless. After sitting through sessions on mountaintop removal and New Orleans at a recent conference, I’ve lost my taste for that kind of “poison.”

And of course, insofar as the domestic motherload doesn’t pan out, we’ll end up importing vast quantities of LNG, with all the vexing environmental issues that raises.

Non-conclusion

This is a lot of words to read for no conclusion, I know, but I’m torn. In a perfect world, we’d be committed to reducing the use of all fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, through efficiency and rapid buildout of renewables. Alternatively, one can envision a U.S. policy whereby natural gas is extracted carefully and used judiciously to carry the U.S. on a slightly slower transition to clean energy.

But as we have surely learned by now, politics is not a precise instrument. Sleep with dogs, wake with fleas. Sometimes you’ve got the bull and sometimes the bull’s got you. Grab a tiger by the tail … etc. If enviros ally with the natural gas industry, it’s hard to know how much they’d ultimately be able to shape the result. Then again, it’s not like there are lots of other powerful allies in the fight against coal just waiting in the wings, and it sure would be nice to get a better climate bill in the Senate …

‘Tis vexing. What do y’all think?