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A natural gas strategy Democrats should heed

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“THE NATURAL-GAS boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence,” President Obama declared in his State of the Union addressTuesday night. “That’s why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.”

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), Maryland Democrats and other friends of Mr. Obama should listen up.

The president is right. The United States sits atop seas of natural gas, a fuel that drives electric turbines, warms homes, heats water and even powers some big trucks. Much of this gas is in unconventional deposits that drillers have only begun to tap. Now that they have, the price of the fuel has plummeted and the United States has gone from a gas importer to a potential exporter, with decades of supply left.

Natural gas also burns cleaner than coal, which had been the dominant fuel used in electricity generation until the vast new gas fields opened up. Burning gas produces substantially less carbon dioxide, the main driver of global warming, than does coal, and it doesn’t pollute the air with coal’s toxic cocktail of particulates and gases. Turning off coal-fired power plants while ramping up gas-burning facilities is one of the trends behind the recent drop in U.S. carbon emissions — the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just announced that power-plant emissions dropped 4.6 percent in 2011 alone.

The country can’t use natural gas forever, because it still produces some carbon dioxide. But gas can, for a time, serve as a low-cost alternative to dirtier fossil fuels in a program to steadily green the economy. Particularly when combined with a smart climate policy, such as a carbon tax, the availability of lots of natural gas is a national blessing.

But extracting unconventional gas is controversial, in part because it involves “fracking” — pumping a mixture of water and other substances deep underground to fracture rock formations, freeing trapped gas. Environmentalists have mobilized against the practice, despite its potential to help reduce carbon emissions.

So, whereas Mr. Obama is promising to fast-track development, many of his fellow Democrats are dragging their feet. Mr. Cuomo’s administration, for example, said Tuesday that, after years of consideration, it would miss another deadline to write new fracking rules, which could trigger another lengthy delay in the development of New York’s large gas reserves. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in 2011 halted permitting in his state pending a study, but the legislature failed to fund the research. Now Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery) wants to establish a formal moratorium, and the O’Malley administration is saying that, even if the study is done by an August 2014 deadline, the state might have to complete more studies.

The president’s approach is better. While praising the energy boom for all its benefits, he has also concluded that reasonable new regulations could make extracting gas much cleaner, and his administration has gone about writing them. One of them, from the EPA, would require that drillers prevent pollutants from escaping into the air during extraction, addressing one of the activists’ primary criticisms. More Democrats should take after their leader.

Read more on this debate: Michael R. Bloomberg and George P. Mitchell: Fracking is too important to foul up The Post’s View: The other side of the fracking fight Stephen Stromberg: The allure of fracking

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