Over the past several years, energy policy has fallen victim to election-season oversimplification, turning critical issues into sound bites. Liberals have claimed that coal is "dirty" and, therefore, evil, while "renewable" energy such as wind and solar are clean and extolled as the future of American energy. On the other side, conservatives routinely tout the virtues of fossil fuels -- secure, cheap and accessible -- while lambasting the viability of "green" energy sources and their need for constant taxpayer support.
Interestingly, natural gas appeals to both factions. Granted, it is a fossil fuel, but we've been told by President Obama, Mitt Romney and the mainstream media that it's also cleaner than coal, cheap and domestically produced. Apparently, we've found a bipartisan energy solution for the country.
If only it were that simple. In reality, when it comes to energy, solutions are not black or white. Is natural gas clean? On its face, yes. It contains less carbon than coal, and that's a good thing. However, there are other considerations. Factoring the extraction and transportation process into the overall environmental impact of both fuels, the distinction between coal and gas becomes narrower and decidedly less clear. Especially because of potent methane leaks that result from the hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") process employed in many natural gas extraction wells, natural gas in this respect is "dirtier" than its proponents claim.
Meanwhile, technological advances in coal mining that have lessened the impact on communities have gone largely ignored by the Obama administration and others waging war on coal. Instead of mountaintop removal and strip mining, coal companies use highly efficient underground techniques that only minimally disturb the surface.
Granted, burning coal does give off twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas. The Environmental Protection Agency has determined that carbon dioxide is a "pollutant" despite the fact that 7 billion human beings exhale the substance. Once carbon dioxide is removed from the equation, it becomes very difficult to distinguish between the emission profiles of coal and natural gas. Additionally, over the past several years, power-plant scrubbers have become increasingly proficient at removing particulate matter -- as well as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides -- capturing and warehousing toxins before they enter the environment.
Is natural gas cheap? For now, yes -- but many analysts have noted that gas is being pumped below production cost -- a situation that is unsustainable. Ultimately, either supply will become restricted or prices will have to rise.
The economics of the two fuels are quite different. This may be why coal is considered a base load (meeting a continuous energy demand and producing energy at a constant, low-cost rate) whereas gas is a peak fuel. Coal can be stockpiled, while gas cannot, and the tremendous price volatility of gas diminishes its value as a dependable, consistent power source.
Coal and gas actually work best together, lowering prices across the board and stabilizing the highs and lows that may come from boom and bust periods. It is impossible and impractical to substitute one for the other -- despite the intentions of the Environmental Protection Agency when it attempted to regulate coal-fired power plants out of existence several months ago.
A smart energy policy does not offer one fuel a significant advantage over all others based on half-truths and misperceptions that are repeated and perpetuated by politicians and the media. What America needs is a truly comprehensive and fact-based energy policy -- one that incorporates coal, natural gas and other affordable fuels that have proved they can compete in the private market without significant government backing.
Bob Barr, former Republican member of the House of Representatives from Georgia, is chairman of Liberty Guard.