Robert F. Kennedy Favors Green Gas

That's natural gas the environmental leader is talking about, not petrol. In a striking column that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had in the Financial Times this week, he advocates a simple regulatory change that would quickly result in the United States relying much more heavily on gas for electricity, and less on coal—an undesirable fuel not only because of its very high carbon emissions but also because of ozone, particulate and neurotoxic mercury emissions, and acid rain. By comparison with coal, Kennedy argues trenchantly, gas is green.

"Since 2007," Kennedy observes, "the discovery of vast supplies of deep shale gas in the United States, along with advanced extraction methods, have created stable supply and predictably low prices for most of the next century." Surprisingly, he continues, America has more gas generation capacity--450 gigawatts--than coal capacity.

Why, then does the United States produce half of its electricity from coal, which accounts for about a third of its greenhouse gas emissions? Because, says Kennedy, "public regulators generally require utilities to dispatch coal-generated power in preference to gas. For that reason, high-efficiency gas plants are in operation only 36 percent of the time." If that rule were changed, "in an instant" three quarters of the country’s coal-generated electricity could be replaced with gas, cutting the country’s greenhouse gas emissions an estimated 20 percent.

Kennedy does not discuss the reasons for the current seemingly bizarre dispatch rules. Presumably, large coal plants are generally classified like nuclear reactors as baseload generation, to run as much of the time as possible. Smaller gas fired plants, which can be much more readily ramped up or down, often are reserved for peaking. Taking economies associated with that distinction into account, it may be that suddenly giving gas preference would be more costly than Kennedy implies. Even so, however, he seems to be putting his finger on a policy lever that could induce rapid fuel switching more economically (and more rapidly) than we could hope from cap-and-trade or carbon taxation, which likely would drive up electricity rates considerably more.

Kennedy, besides being the son of the late senator and presidential contender, has been well known in New York State for many years as an effective and ardent environmental activist. Time magazine designated him a "hero of the planet" for his efforts to restore the Hudson River. This year Rolling Stone magazine named him one of its "100 agents of change." Several years ago Kennedy had national prominence with an article in Rolling Stone that argued, rather persuasively, that the Republicans stole the 2004 presidential election with vote rigging in the crucial state of Ohio.

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