Bloomberg flips on gas: ‘Worse than coal’

Source: By Adam Aton, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, December 16, 2019

Michael Bloomberg has voiced new criticism for natural gas at the start of his 2020 run, but the latest entry into the Democratic presidential field hasn’t turned completely against it — a half-step that’s unlikely to earn him much support from the party’s progressive wing.

Even so, Bloomberg’s newfound condemnation is a notable change for someone who used to hail natural gas as a “godsend” for displacing coal-generated electricity. Experts said the move underscores the rapid shift of climate politics and policy on the left.

In announcing the first part of his climate plan Friday, Bloomberg called gas emissions “really scary” and the “next big problem.”

“This is going to be worse than coal,” he said.

But the former New York City mayor still found it hard to make a clean break from natural gas, especially in regard to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — a popular, and controversial, method of harvesting the fossil fuel.

“We’re not fighting fracking because it’s probably a lost cause,” Bloomberg said. “What you can do today is stop the [methane] leaks, and I think that’s gotta be the focus.”

Bloomberg’s position is an illustration of why some climate advocates remain wary of the billionaire who has financed much of the modern green movement — even as he accepts more of the liberal base’s demands.

His climate plan would halt future natural gas-fired power plants, curtail subsidies and stop production on public lands. It’s silent on offshore drilling.

“A decade too late,” RL Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus, said of Bloomberg’s turn against gas.

Fracking has unlocked a huge supply of U.S. natural gas in recent years, making it more affordable to burn than coal. But natural gas isn’t a silver bullet; it still emits about half the carbon dioxide of coal. And producing it can release methane — a greenhouse gas with a short-term warming potency more than 80 times greater than carbon.

Experts say the rapid build-out of natural gas infrastructure threatens America’s eventual shift away from fossil fuels. Worldwide, oil and gas giants already have spent $50 billion on projects that undermine global climate efforts, one recent report found.

Bloomberg credits his past philanthropy for shuttering 299 of the 534 U.S. coal plants, even as it helped boost natural gas. Coal power accounts for about one-quarter of U.S. electricity, down from about 42% when he started financing anti-coal efforts in 2011.

The former Republican has spent more than $150 million on the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign and similar activism, and in June he pledged an additional $500 million to help decarbonize U.S. electricity. He cited those figures when asked about his support for a Green New Deal — an ambitious but pricey vision of combating climate change with a government-led jobs program.

“What we need is a lot of things right now that you can implement, and they tend to be not all that expensive,” he said. “My foundation basically funded it all, so it wasn’t that much money.”

He continued: “I don’t think it’s big money that you need for the short and intermediate term. Long term, you can certainly come up with scenarios where you’d spend a lot of money, and as an aspirational thing I think they’re great, but the details of how you want to do it and what it would really cost is something I’ll leave to others, because by that time I’ll be long gone.”

Much of the success in transitioning the U.S. from coal to gas has come from showing utilities and regulators they could save money by burning gas instead of coal. Bloomberg has bragged about forcing that change on utilities like American Electric Power and the Omaha Public Power District.

“If we’re going to win the war on coal, we need to have natural gas in our arsenal,” Bloomberg wrote in his 2017 book “Climate of Hope,” which he co-authored with former Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.

But there’s a potential cost to that strategy. By replacing old coal plants with new gas generators, Bloomberg possibly helped to extend the life of fossil fuel generators that might’ve otherwise shut down.

“I think [Bloomberg] was too firm a believer in gas as a bridge fuel. The problem is the bridge has taken on a life of its own now,” said Peter Erickson, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

“Once stuff is built and locked in, it’s harder to get rid of,” he said, adding that gas is one reason U.S. emissions are on the rise again.

Bloomberg used to answer criticism like that by saying a no-gas grid would be unrealistic.

“What the critics forget is that we can’t simply turn off the lights — which is what would happen were we to shut off all nonrenewable energy sources. We just don’t have the renewable capacity yet. Until we do, natural gas is an essential alternative,” he wrote in “Climate of Hope.”

Now, as he seeks to win over an increasingly liberal primary electorate, Bloomberg has taken a less strident tone.

In his climate plan announcement, he sought to explain his shift on the issue by saying that methane leaks and total natural gas emissions once weren’t as big a problem.

“When we started, natural gas wasn’t as prevalent and the leaks weren’t as bad as they are today,” said Bloomberg at an Alexandria, Va., campaign stop.

“We made progress there. And we have a road map to complete that process by 2030 … so it’s time we had the capacity, the bandwidth, to take on the next big problem, which is natural gas.”