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<<There are always 'fringe' groups. I don't see the left in general
objecting to energy plants, if needed. They use power too. They just don't want to go back to coal and nuke. I agree. Those would be last ditch efforts if we ran out of natural gas. What's wrong with that??
>>

If you "don't see" it I'm afraid you're not looking in the right places.

Now, here's a bit of info about natural gas vs. other fuel sources. As you imply, natural gas is the "cleanest" of the available fuel sources. It also has properties that make it useful in many applications besides just burning under boilers to make steam to generate electricity. It is used in industrial applications where precise temperature control is essential for manufacturing processes. It is used as feedstock in chemical manufacturing. It is used for cooking and home heating. It is used for fuel in vehicles.

From the standpoint of rational public policy and efficient allocation of scarce resources, it doesn't make sense to squander natural gas by burning it under boilers when there are other fuels that are useful for that purpose, but have fewer alternative uses. Moreover, natural gas supply tends to be cyclical. There were shortages in the 1970s, after 25 years of irrational federal price regulation had discouraged drilling and replenishment of deliverable reserves. The price regulation problem was addressed by federal legislation in 1978 that spawned a drilling boom, a price spike-up, and upheaval in the transportation and distribution sectors of the industry. Ultimately, market forces and new federal policies under Ronald Reagan's administration caused the transportation and distribution sectors to restructure and the price controls and price ceilings on the commodity were eliminated by legislation enacted in 1985. As a result, we have experienced a relatively stable market and supply situation for natural gas over the past 15 years.

But deliverable reserves of natural gas have to be continually replenished by drilling and development, activities that are driven by price. And sources of potentially significant new reserves tend to lie in offshore and pristine areas where opposition to such activities is increasingly encountered. [Note: The current issues in California have not been attributed to a fuel-supply problem, as I understand it, so much as to a generating plant capacity problem. But fuel supply is always a lurking issue which, if ignored, will bubble up and compound any generating plant problems.]

For a time during the shortage era of the '70s, there were legal restrictions in place on using natural gas as boiler fuel. I'm not sure if any such restrictions still exist, at the federal or any State level. In times of surplus, the natural gas industry will oppose such restrictions, of course, because, like any business, it wants as broad a market as possible for its product. But when supplies get tight, having all that demand tends to push up the price. That's not a bad thing, provided the higher prices stimulate new drilling and production. But when those activities are stifled, as you can easily see, things can get tense. Clearly, though, capping prices and locking in supplier/purchaser relationships by law, as was the ill-conceived federal policy prior to deregulation, is not the solution--not even "short-term" as some are pushing for in California right now.

For a conventional power-plant operator, the ideal situation is to have the capability to switch between available sources of fuel (i.e. coal and natural gas). This provides not only a defense against temporary supply disruptions from one source or the other, but also spawns interfuel price competition. Technology has developed to "scrub" the emissions from coal-burning plants, dramatically reducing emissions. And sources of "clean" coal in places like Montana and Wyoming have been developed. Unfortunately, with the stroke of a pen, Bill Clinton red-lined hundreds of thousands of acres of potential clean coal in Utah, putting it off-limits for development.

The nuclear plants are a different issue, of course. They scare people. My experience in that area doesn't extend beyond a bit of uranium mining, so I can't speak with much authority. But the safety record on nuclear power is pretty impressive here in the U.S., isn't it? Even Three-Mile Island, our most notable problem case, has not led to problems on a large scale. If we're going to stop all progress because of challenges encountered along the way, we would have stopped seagoing vessels from sailing ten thousand years ago. But that's pretty much what has happened to nuclear power after TMI and the Chernoble disaster. At some point, unless we suddenly figure out how to make electricity out of seawater or make some other startling breakthrough, we're going to have to get over it.

What is that concept that TMF talks about--"a disruptive technology"--or something like that? It means something that comes along and is going to replace the way things have been done in an entire segment of the economy, like what PCs and laser printers have done to typewriters. Everybody is looking for something like that in the energy field. Exotic power-generating sources like windmills and solar panels have some limited, local usefulness, and where they make economic sense, they have been and will continue to be developed. But they are not, and will not become, a large scale replacement for what is currently in use.

And, as Jedi's post made so clear, with an exploding population the "large-scale" nature of the problem just keeps getting larger in certain areas, continually compounding any potential solution. Think about it--you climb over a mountain and on the other side find a Garden of Eden or a Shangri-La. Everybody wants to live there, but nobody wants it to change. This does present a problem, doesn't it?

/s/ S.T.

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