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During the last 10 years, readily accessible and affordable natural gas from new domestic shale gas plays has led to a resurgence in demand for gas. Utilities across the U.S. have converted their operations from burning oil and coal to relying on natural gas to produce energy. At the same time, many large businesses and institutions have turned to natural gas to meet their power and thermal needs.

This is a trend that’s likely to continue during the next few decades because cost-competitive, cleaner, and abundant natural gas promises to be readily available for decades to come. The only potential speed bump in this trend is a lack of natural gas infrastructure in parts of the U.S., most notably in the Northeast. That’s why many political and business leaders are pushing for development of new gas infrastructure, such as the proposed Northeast Natural Gas Pipeline, which would carry gas into New England from the shale plays of Pennsylvania and New York.

There is no doubt that we need greater access to the abundant natural gas that’s being produced throughout the U.S. In many parts of the country, commercial and residential customers face dramatic price spikes because of a lack of access to affordable gas. It’s an annual occurrence that can be devastating to corporate bottom lines and personal checkbooks alike. People should not be penalized for living in areas where there is a shortage of pipelines.

However, the push for new infrastructure has led to the rise of a new challenge: opposition by those who are concerned about the potential environmental costs. Understandably, much of this opposition revolves around concerns over whether the pipeline will pose significant environmental risks or keep the Northeast reliant upon natural gas when we should be moving toward renewable energy.

These are reasonable and important concerns, and they should be given careful consideration by regulators and legislators. However, ultimately they should not derail increased investment in natural gas infrastructure. In fact, on environmental grounds alone, this infrastructure is essential to America’s effort to be independent from foreign supplies and, ultimately, to preserve national security. Until America develops a robust renewable energy policy, we need to take advantage of our robust supplies of natural gas. Conversion to natural gas for energy generation, thermal loads, and transportation will allow the country to meet our carbon reduction goals and at the same time give us an abundant and reliable supply of domestic energy.

A favorite criticism of opponents is that the pipelines themselves would pose environmental risks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Natural gas has a far better safety record than both oil and coal. We are all familiar with the devastating environmental impact of recent oil accidents and resulting leaks. Likewise, coal mining accidents are all too common, and even everyday coal mining operations present significant environmental hazards, not to mention health risks for mine employees.

Conversely, the natural gas industry has a sterling safety record. With modern pipe technology, the risk of leaks is remote. And even if there were to be a leak, escaping gas wouldn’t cause the long-term damage that results from an oil leak. Rather, leaking gas would merely dissipate harmlessly into the environment. Once developed, these natural gas pipelines would be invisible. Development would truly be a case of “set it and forget it.”

Activists also express concern about hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” However, in spite of the bad press that fracking has been receiving recently, the oil industry has been using this approach for many years, and the technology has evolved to the point where, not only can it be done safely, but it can also be done in an environmentally responsible manner.

Finally, one of the most common complaints among environmental activists is that developing new natural gas infrastructure would mean that we are giving up on renewable energy. Not only is this not true, but it’s not even a possibility. Renewable energy is America’s future. Unfortunately, we are still many years away from being able to meet our power and thermal needs through renewable energy. For now, natural gas is the essential bridge fuel that will have to carry us to that renewable future.

This is not a choice between natural gas and renewable energy; it’s a choice between clean-burning gas and much dirtier oil and coal. Certainly, increased access to natural gas will offer financial advantages, since gas is much cheaper than oil and coal. Our economy will benefit greatly if businesses can reduce their energy and heating costs, as will families that struggle to heat their homes.

But opponents are particularly misguided about the environmental implications of the pipeline. Admittedly, natural gas is a fossil fuel. However, it is much cleaner burning than either coal or oil and it is better for the environment and for our health. If new natural gas infrastructure is not built, utilities, businesses, and families will have no choice but to turn to much dirtier and less healthy options like oil and coal.

If we are going to make a commitment to seeking cleaner energy, America needs to start by continuing the transition from oil and coal to natural gas. The pipeline is an important element of that transition.

The expansion of natural gas infrastructure won’t be a permanent solution. In fact, it won’t even be a particularly long-term solution. However, it will provide access to the abundant and affordable energy America needs to power its homes and businesses as we continue to develop the renewable technologies of the future.

Mike Nicoloro, P.E., senior vice president, and Joan Fontaine, P.E., vice president, manage Sanborn, Head & Associates, Inc.’s (http://sanbornhead.com) energy division. They can be reached at mnicoloro@sanbornhead.com and jfontaine@sanbornhead.com, respectively.

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