Energy: We must get it right

Demand for energy is increasing rapidly. Around the world, 1.6 billion people still dwell in energy poverty with no access to electricity.

Global competition for energy supply gives increasing importance to the American West's status as the nation's most important site for growth in energy supplies. Wind, solar, coal, oil, uranium and natural gas abound here. Because so many of the West's energy resources are undeveloped, their economic potential is significant, as is the effect on our communities and environment if we do not handle their development with care.

And we need to handle energy policy-making with equal care. Reasonable conversation about the West's energy policy is as necessary as it is rare. The University of Colorado's Center of the American West examined the West's energy issues and produced a report, "What Every Westerner Should Know about Energy," which was written in a tone both calm and refreshingly irreverent. If we are lucky, the objective, nonpartisan and more tranquil tone of the report will turn out to be part of a trend, as we seek an alternative to the current dysfunctional shouting match of demagoguery, demonization and "gotcha" headlines.

No energy resource offers us a "silver bullet special" or a "free lunch." Four-story drilling rig or forty-story windmill, all forms of energy production come with strengths, weaknesses, benefits, costs and "externalities." Making sound choices requires an atmosphere of reason in which all of these qualities and characteristics can be fairly and fully evaluated.

For 20 years, advocates of natural gas have made our case to an energy industry that emphasized oil and coal almost to gas' exclusion. Then, natural gas began to come into its own as a source for electricity generation. In the early 1990s, many in the environmental community supported the expanded use of natural gas, in light of its advantages in producing fewer problem emissions than other fossil fuels. A decade ago, gas may well have been romanticized. But now that the infrastructure necessary to produce and transport it is expanding rapidly, gas risks being demonized.

While many of us involved with natural gas congratulate the advocates of Amendment 37, our experience does suggest a warning. As renewable energy ramps up and its external costs and impacts become more evident, it will probably undergo a similar loss of "halo effect." We cannot seem to stop ourselves from lusting after that "silver bullet, free lunch" combo, and then feeling deep disappointment when reality creeps in.

Rocky Mountain natural gas is important to our more realistic hopes in many ways. The Rockies' intermountain basins have the natural gas reserve potential of the prolific Indonesian area, with as much as 400 recoverable TCF (trillion cubic feet). By and large, these geologic basins do not lie under national parks, national monuments, or designated wilderness. This gas, responsibly produced, can serve as a Rocky Mountain companion to the cause of renewable energy and of enhanced efficiency and conservation.

Especially in terms of greenhouse gases, natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel. It fuels 95 percent of the nation's new electricity generation capacity, and it heats and powers more than 50 percent of our homes and businesses. Gas is also the No. 1 fuel used in U.S. manufacturing.

As we move toward an economy of renewable energy, the world still will run on gas, coal, oil, and nuclear energy as renewables grow into their roles. Gas is an essential part of the transition and ultimate solution. Because it can power up quickly, gas complements the intermittent nature of renewables. Gas research, development and infrastructure build bridges to the potential ultimate renewable: hydrogen. Natural gas is the main "raw material" for producing hydrogen in a pure form.

Using gas, our cleanest fossil fuel, to get to hydrogen is not a perfect plan, but it is a realistic one. Most important, we are learning to develop natural gas fields in the Rockies efficiently and economically. If we use the best technology and planning, our great-grandchildren will see no evidence of our work when they visit drilling sites. Boulder's 100-year-old oil field provides an example: A landscape that features open space and upscale neighborhoods was, in the early 1900s, littered with oil wells.

And we're focusing on being good neighbors to the communities near the sites where we drill. The English common-law concept of allowing simultaneous ownership by different parties of the surface estate and mineral estate has, for centuries, let the miner mine and farmer farm, both using their skills to the benefit of society. This "split estate" presents difficult issues, but none that mutual good faith can't resolve.

As demand for energy from the West grows, environmental and industry leaders would be wise to sit down at the table in good faith. The more people seated at the table, rather than stationed at the ramparts, the more productive and meaningful the dialogue will be and the more effectively it will direct public opinion, political decisions, and market forces to a positive future.

Energy is so important that we must get it right.

Fred Julander is president of Julander Energy Company, a natural gas exploration firm active in Moffat County and chairman of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association's annual Rocky Mountain Natural Gas Strategy Conference.

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