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If you’re a politician, science is a bitch; it resists spin. And a new set of studies—about, of all things, a simple molecule known as CH4—show that President Obama’s climate change strategy is starting to unravel even as it’s being knit. To be specific: most of the administration’s theoretical gains in the fight against global warming have come from substituting natural gas for coal. But it looks now as if that doesn’t really help.
In a very real sense it’s not entirely the president’s fault. When Obama took office in 2008 he decided to deal with health care before climate change, in essence tackling the biggest remaining problem of the 20th century before teeing up the biggest challenge of the 21st. His team told environmentalists that they wouldn’t be talking about global warming, focusing instead on “green jobs.” Obama did seize the opportunity offered by the auto industry bailout to demand higher mileage standards—a useful move, but one that will pay off slowly over the decades. Other than that, faced with a hostile Congress, he spent no political capital on climate.
But he was able nonetheless to claim a victory of sorts. His accession to office coincided (coincidentally) with the widespread adoption of hydraulic fracking to drill for natural gas, resulting in a sudden boom in supplies and a rapid drop in price, to the point where gas began to supplant coal as the fuel of choice for American power plants. As a result (and as a result of the recession Obama also inherited), the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions began to fall modestly.
For a political leader, it was the very definition of a lucky break: Without having to do much heavy lifting against the power of the fossil fuel industry, the administration was able to produce results. In fact, it gave Obama cover from the right, as he in essence turned the GOP chant of “Drill Baby Drill” into “Frack Baby Frack.” Not only that, the cheap gas was a boost to sputtering American manufacturing, making it profitable once again to make chemicals and other goods close to home. As Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address, as his re-election campaign geared up, “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly a hundred years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.”
In his second term, Obama has become more vocal about climate change—and even more explicit in his reliance on natural gas to make the numbers work. Here’s the State of the Union 2014: “if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.”
Shortly after that speech, the president announced his most ambitious climate plans yet, instructing the EPA to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, with the goal of cutting 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. This attack on coal was welcome news for those of us concerned with climate change, because it marked the first time (and given his approaching lame-duck status, probably the last) the president had really taken on the issue with actual laws. It was, among other things, an (apparently successful) effort to get countries like China making commitments of their own, and to restart the international negotiations that failed at Copenhagen in 2009.
Whether that strategy pays off or not, one key result is not in doubt: As Forbes magazine pointed out that day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations will lead to “the dramatic expansion of natural gas as a fuel for power generation.” Some sun, some wind, but an awful lot of gas. In fact, the administration is so bullish on fracked gas that it is both moving to export more of our supply to other nations (it’s even been suggested as a way to stand up to Vladimir Putin) and offering many countries technical assistance in learning how to frack on their own. A long list, including India, China, Indonesia, South Africa and Mexico have taken up the State Department on the offer.
Much of the new gas that fracking made profitable was found beneath the Marcellus Shale, a huge formation that runs beneath the Appalachians as far north as upstate New York. Fracking and drilling for gas in this densely populated region was different than doing it in Texas or the Dakotas—people quickly began to notice, and complain. Grassroots opposition to fracking mushroomed, finding its voice in director Josh Fox’s provocative documentary Gasland, and its iconic image of a faucet shooting flame.