Stories

How Democrats came to oppose natural gas

Michael Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg. Photo: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Plenty of Democrats have supported natural gas as a way to kick coal out of the U.S. energy mix over the past several years, but that’s rapidly changing.

Why it matters: Natural gas, while far cleaner than coal and oil, is still a fossil fuel that emits heat-trapping emissions that cause global warming. It’s become plentiful in America over the past decade and is poised to become one of the world’s dominant energy sources. To what degree politicians embrace it or not is critical.

The big picture: As I’ve written in two recent Harder Line columns, Democrats, including those running for president, are increasingly embracing more aggressive and progressive policies on climate change while rejecting natural gas, along with oil and coal. But this hasn’t always been the case.

Flashback: Positions by two prominent Democrats — former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — illustrate the overall party’s shift away from natural gas. Let’s break them down.

Bloomberg

Speaking at a Columbia University event in 2013, then-Mayor Bloomberg (who at the time was an independent) praised natural gas, listing it at the top of his list of energy policy actions:

“The first is encouraging environmentally responsible use of America’s newly accessible and abundant supplies of natural gas. The advances in fracking and horizontal drilling technology that have produced this natural gas bonanza have lowered wholesale power prices and have also helped cut America’s carbon emissions to levels not seen in more than 20 years."

The following year, he also criticized New York’s ban on fracking, a controversial extraction technique that has helped unlock shale natural gas and made the U.S. the world’s biggest producer of both oil and gas.

Where it stands: Earlier this month Bloomberg launched a $500 million campaign to halt construction of new natural gas plants alongside shutting down coal plants, which had previously been a years-long effort for him.

  • In a statement to Axios about his earlier positions, Bloomberg said the plummeting price of renewable energy indicates natural gas is no longer needed as a temporary power source. "At the same time, the threat of climate change has only increased," Bloomberg said. "We cannot afford to replace one fossil fuel with another when we have the clean energy alternatives to move Beyond Carbon."

Whitehouse

While at The Wall Street Journal, I wrote a story in August 2014 about how Democrats were increasingly backing oil and gas as America was suddenly awash in both fuels, which helped create jobs as the country dug out from the 2008 recession.

  • "I'm willing to defer cracking down on natural gas, because the economic benefits to the nation have been so great," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), said in an interview with me then.

Where it stands: When presented with his 2014 comments, Whitehouse said in a statement: "Since joining the Senate in 2007, I’ve worked relentlessly to move the United States away from all fossil fuels, in particular by putting a fair price on carbon pollution. The urgency around that effort has only grown as global temperatures continue to rise faster than was predicted even a decade ago, and as the Trump administration has focused on propping up polluters at the long-term expense of our economy."

What’s changed:

  • The science of climate change has grown more urgent in the face of continued inaction in America and around the world.
  • Emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that’s also the primary component of natural gas, are rising. Scientific research suggests that one cause may be growing oil and gas production.
  • The economy has improved, allowing political space for increased focus on the environment. Kevin Book, managing partner of research firm ClearView Energy Partners, shared these stats: In August 2014, national unemployment was 6.3%. Now it’s 3.6%.
  • Renewable energy costs have dropped more than predicted then (as Bloomberg said).

Go deeper: Natural gas is helping combat climate change — but not enough