PITTSBURGH - Those who believe the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new limits on carbon emissions are good news for the natural gas industry aren't thinking long-term, according to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce official.
Although natural gas may fill some of the demand for electricity in the short-term as coal-fired power plants come offline, the EPA's ultimate goal in enforcing the Clean Air Act is to eliminate all carbon emissions from electric utilities, Christopher Guith, senior vice president for the chamber's Institute for 21st Century Energy, told attendees of the DUG East Conference and Exhibition Thursday as the annual gathering wrapped up in Pittsburgh.
That means natural gas, too, Guith said.
"The way the Clean Air Act works, we know the absolute result. ... Some time over the next 40 or 80 years, and I can't tell you when, we will no longer burn coal or natural gas for electricity," he said.
Between 15 and 20 percent of the nation's fleet of coal-fired power plants will be retired prematurely by 2020 as a result of tightening federal regulations, Guith predicted. He said this will have a dire impact on the reliability of the electric grid.
"When the temperature drops to 20-below (zero), people die if there's no electricity. ... EPA is not forced to answer what's going to happen during the polar vortex of 2016," Guith said.
According to Guith, the number of American jobs related to some aspect of the oil and gas industry is projected almost to double by 2025, to about 4 million. The country, and the Northeast in particular, he said, is poised to experience a manufacturing renaissance as a result of cheap feedstocks of natural gas byproducts such as ethane and butane that are used to produce a wide variety of consumer goods.
But such a bright future is far from certain, according to Guith.
In addition to pressure from the EPA, the natural gas industry is facing fracking moratoriums and similar actions around the country that could severely stunt this growth, he said - more than 400 state and local actions in 21 states.
Although many of those laws exist in places where drilling activity is minimal, anti-fracking efforts are stepping up in key areas such as Colorado, which, if successful, will set the tone for the rest of the West, Guith said.
"We can screw this up if we're not careful, if we're not vigilant," he said.
According to Guith, America has 120 years of natural gas, 206 years of oil and 464 years of coal beneath its feet - and that's just what's recoverable through current technology.
"Our policies simply don't reflect that," Guith said.