The enormous stores of natural gas that have been locked away in shale deposits across America that we’ve now been able to tap into, thanks to breakthroughs in seismic imaging, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” are enabling us to replace much dirtier coal with cleaner gas as the largest source of electricity generation in America. And natural gas may soon be powering cars, trucks and ships as well. This is helping to lower our carbon emissions faster than expected and make us more energy secure. And, if prices stay low, it may enable America to bring back manufacturing that migrated overseas. But, as the energy and climate expert Hal Harvey puts it, there is just one big, hugely important question to be asked about this natural gas bounty: “Will it be a transition to a clean energy future, or does it defer a clean energy future?”
That is the question — because natural gas is still a fossil fuel. The good news: It emits only half as much greenhouse gas as coal when combusted and, therefore, contributes only half as much to global warming. The better news: The recent glut has made it inexpensive to deploy. But there is a hidden, long-term, cost: A sustained gas glut could undermine new investments in wind, solar, nuclear and energy efficiency systems — which have zero emissions — and thus keep us addicted to fossil fuels for decades.