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We've Got To Live In The Real World

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Senator Tom O'Mara

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In a recent commentary for the Times Union, the state capital’s hometown newspaper, I welcomed the opportunity to comment on one of today’s most pressing energy challenges. 

In part, I wrote:

There was a time not long ago when environmentalists hailed natural gas as a cleaner energy solution. During his first Earth Day speech as President, Barack Obama lauded domestic natural gas as a critical bridge fuel to a renewable energy future. Near the conclusion of his presidency, he credited the use of natural gas for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reminding us “we've got to live in the real world.” 

That message got lost somewhere along the line. If we do not start remembering that we live in the real world, the cost of heat and electricity will be unaffordable for most New Yorkers. In the real world, demand for natural gas is at an all-time high. That fact has been good for the environment and the American economy, including in our neighboring state of Pennsylvania. 

Since 1990, U.S. natural gas production is up 37 percent and greenhouse gas emissions are down 17 percent. From 2005-2015, natural gas consumption increased 24 percent – contributing to dramatic drops in a number of air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide (down 66 percent), fine particulate matter (down 34 percent), and nitrogen oxide (down 20 percent). One of the important benefits of natural gas is the way it works in concert with renewable forms of energy. The main challenge with relying on renewable sources of energy, such as wind or solar, is their inherent unreliability. Storage capacity simply is not yet ready for prime time and cannot meet our energy demands. Continued innovation and investment in this area is critical to the future viability of renewables.

Electric power needs to be used when it’s generated. If the sun’s not out or the wind isn’t blowing, a wind turbine or solar panel isn’t much use to the electric grid. Natural gas is a strong complement to renewables because it can be brought online quickly, ensuring reliability in systems when renewables are not producing.  The Business Council for Sustainable Energy highlights this important link between domestic natural gas and renewables in a recent report. According to the report, natural gas and renewables together generated 50 percent of U.S. electricity in 2017, up from 31 percent in 2008. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. power sector fell to their lowest levels since 1990. Furthermore, while we have made some gains in renewable electricity supply, our heating fuel remains at about 95 percent fossil fuel-based and natural gas is by far the cleanest of that heat source.

Unfortunately, a group of vocal activists refuses to accept the very real limits to renewable energy. They aggressively work to strangle the development of much-needed energy infrastructure. New York State policymakers block projects that are essential to supply energy to the entire New York and New England region – with very real world consequences for consumers cut off from access to affordable energy. The zealots may be successful in assuring that we don't freeze to death in the dark, but ignoring natural gas may mean that we freeze to death with the lights on.

This past winter, New England was faced with constraints to its energy supply caused in part by the blockade of domestic pipeline construction, which Governor Cuomo has singlehandedly blocked. Faced with a harsh winter and limited access to domestic natural gas, New England imported liquefied natural gas from Russia just to meet basic heating and electricity needs. 
 
In New York, the Governor has laid out a set of very ambitious renewable energy goals. I agree that we should be leading the way in renewable energy development. But we also have to make sure that residents and businesses have the energy they need right now to live and thrive in New York. 

We can keep the lights and heat on, and emissions down, but only if we stop this senseless opposition to natural gas and critical energy infrastructure.

"From The Capitol" is a weekly column distributed to local media by Senator O'Maras office for publication. 

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