This is a repost of my blog at National Journal.

As I wrote in the Expert Blog at the beginning of this year, the primary attraction of natural gas today is its price advantage over competing fuels. Sure, the emissions benefits over coal and petroleum are nice and important, but pricing dynamics are driving the market. And it’s imprudent policy to assume that gas will remain cheap, or even affordable for that matter. While we most likely have a few more years of moderately-priced natural gas, we will see a return to the Bad Old Days of natural gas price volatility as soon as emerging and proposed infrastructure changes accelerate. Natural gas’ emissions benefits are no match for zero-emission competitors, but today’s cheap gas prices are luring crucial support away from the long-term renewables solution.

In the power sector, decisions are being made based on today’s low prices that commit significant parts of our electricity infrastructure to gas for the next generation. This will come at the expense of renewables, which, unlike natural gas, will only have a future cost curve that will continue to plummet. I can predict a future Energy Expert Blog after five years’ time bemoaning the natural gas price trap and “is it too late to ramp up renewables and efficiency?”.

Remember that natural gas, for all of its emissions benefits to its fossil fuel cousins, remains a messy extractive product. The folks that argue that all natural gas drilling pollutes drinking water are as correct as the industry folks who claim, always with a straight face, that fracking has never contaminated a single drinking water source (let’s start opening up those hundreds of nondisclosure agreements households have been forced to sign with drillers in exchange for getting their hands on trucked clean water to their rural homes). There is no such thing as benign fossil fuel extraction. There are risks and environmental costs associated with fracking, and there can be no doubt that the vast fracking revolution, complemented with weak federal (and, for the most part, state) oversight is a recipe for disaster. Water wars will define the next generation’s resource fight (it’s actually already beginning). Let’s not hasten that with natural gas’ inherent risks.

The recent revival of multilateral international trade talks with visions of using the 1992 Energy Policy Act requirement forcing approval of natural gas import/export facilities to countries with which we have a FTA requiring national treatment for trade in natural gas is fallacious. Sure the extreme price gap between North American and European/Asian markets is tempting, but the minute we become a significant exporter the fuel will no longer be affordable to fill our power plants and T. Boone Pickens’ patented trucks.

Natural gas will continue to be a part of our energy mix for the foreseeable future. But it must not―and cannot―serve as our foundation. That must be reserved for renewables and efficiency. The technology revolution is not fracking, but in solar PV and other renewables.

Tyson Slocum Directs Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on twitter @tysonslocum

Yesterday Fox Business hosted me for a short debate on whether a variety of federal subsidies for electric cars and batteries costing $7.5 billion over a decade were a good investment. My response that it’s pretty cheap considering the nearly $300 billion America spends to import foriegn oil. We need to diversify our transportation fuel, and electric cars must play a role.

This week National Journal reports that former Senators Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. and Trent Lott, R-Miss “are working together on a blueprint for energy legislation” through their role as co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Strategic Energy Initiative, and plan to release it in January. NJ notes that “their effort could gain traction: Both are held in high regard by their former colleagues, and the BPC is a serious player in the energy debate.

What NJ fails to mention is that both Dorgan and Lott are also lobbyists getting rich taking special interest money from a who’s who of major energy corporations, which raises the question: will their energy blueprint serve as yet another veiled, sophisticated sell for their high priced energy corporate clients? When does their respected “high regard” begin and their shilling for their corporate clients end?

Lott’s Breaux Lott Leadership Group represents ExxonMobilEntergy, GE, energy trader Goldman Sachs, National Propane Gas Association, Plains Exploration and Shell Oil. In addition, the Breaux Lott group is a subsidiary of lobbying giant Patton Boggs, so you should also include PBs list of energy clients: ATP Oil & Gas, the Mining Awareness Resource Group, Oil States International and the oil giant TOTAL.

Dorgan co-chairs Government Relations for Arent Fox, where his corporate energy clients include oil companies Denbury Resources & Noble Energy.

I’m sure there will be some good recommendations in the Lott-Dorgan energy report. And I’m sure there’ll be policies that will be controversial. At the end of the day, we just don’t know what made it into the blueprint because of policy merits or the special interest paycheck.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @tysonslocum

While everyone was paying attention to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s huge losses caused by botched trading in its London office, Public Citizen was tryingTyson Slocum get the authorities to focus on its subsidiary, J.P. Morgan Ventures Energy Corp., which appeared to be immersed in a far more serious practice, potentially illegal manipulation of markets for electric power. The regulators are finally doing that.

The announcement today by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that it is investigating whether the unit complied with FERC’s requests for operational information is welcome news indeed. FERC is questioning whether the subsidiary submitted misleading information or omitted material facts in its communications with the commission, the California Independent System Operator and the operator’s market monitoring department.

The last thing energy consumers need is another Enron. We’re glad to see FERC on the case.

Tyson Slocum is Public Citizen’s Energy Program director. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum.

The Department of Justice reportedly is seeking a $25 billion settlement with BP that would resolve all civil and criminal damages and liabilities arising from the 2010 Gulf disaster that killed 11 workers and did untold damage to the ecosystem – even though the company’s liability is at least $51.5 billion. The settlement also reportedly would keep both parties out of the courtroom and BP senior management out of jail.

Should the parties settle prior to a trial, any settlement must allow for full recovery of the Gulf Coast region and its communities; deter other companies from putting profits before safety; and involve the disclosure of all information gathered by the government, so the public has a complete understanding of the wrongdoing that killed workers and continues to wreak havoc on the environment.

The following terms should be applied:

• The settlement should include criminal penalties for the company. The settlement should not resolve the criminal penalties for individuals, including for their roles in the Deepwater oil rig explosion that resulted in the deaths of 11 men. The prosecution of individuals should proceed separately.

• A settlement must place financial responsibility on BP for future environmental and economic costs caused by still-undiscovered damage. The costs to the environment from the release of more than 5 million barrels of oil and hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical disbursement may not be known for decades.

• Permanent sanctions must be part of the settlement. For example, the government should restrict BP’s access to future and current government oil and gas leases, and bar it from federal contracts for good.

• BP should agree not to deduct from its taxable revenues any future costs and fines associated with the spill. The corporation wrote off nearly $13 billion in spill costs from its 2010 income, thus depriving the Treasury of much-needed money.

• All BP documents related to the disaster must be made publicly available and accessible.

• The settlement should include penalties called for by the full spectrum of laws that exist to protect our environment, wildlife and workers. Damages associated with Clean Water Act violations alone have been estimated at $21 billion. Other laws that must be accounted for include the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

• A proposed settlement between BP and the U.S. government must be placed before the public for review and comment before it is finalized. Settlement terms regarding a corporate crime of this magnitude and impact merits public scrutiny and input.

The Justice Department may face White House pressure to settle before the Democratic convention. And if press reports that a settlement will absolve BP and impose only light sanctions are true, BP, too, will be eager to settle. It is imperative that justice, not political expediency, be the primary consideration at the Justice Department.

Tyson Slocum is Public Citizen’s energy program director. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum

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