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ANOTHER VIEW: Natural gas should be part of nation's environmental strategy

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This editorial previously appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

Like the commodity itself, the market for natural gas is notoriously volatile. Demand rises or falls whenever the weather goes off track, and supply disruptions periodically send prices soaring. In recent months, natural gas prices have shot up as demand increased and supply fell short across the globe.

Natural gas heats homes, but it’s also vital for industry. The latest gas shortages have raised the price of electricity in Europe and forced some factories to shut down, which in turn reduces the supply of gas-dependent products such as aluminum, steel and fertilizer.

Higher prices for gas can create political headaches, too, and China’s debt-laden economy is especially vulnerable. On Capitol Hill, a push is on for limiting exports of natural gas from the U.S., the world’s largest producer, to keep domestic prices stable and deter hoarding. A whiff of panic is in the air.

Everyone needs to take a deep breath. Commodity markets correct themselves when they’re given the freedom to do so, and, unless there’s manipulation or fraud, government should not intervene. Overreacting to a price spike only undermines the market forces at work. Our advice: Do no harm, and let the marketplace sort itself out.

More broadly, the desperate grab for natural gas reflects the importance of this fossil fuel for economic and political stability across the globe. That important fact conflicts with the agenda of environmentalists who want to eliminate the use of all fossil fuels, preferably as of yesterday.  

What to do? Again, don’t panic.

Over time, the world needs to wean itself from carbon-based fuels and embrace renewable sources of energy. The key phrase, however, is “over time.” As the recent market action shows, there’s no responsible way to turn off the gas without an affordable alternative in place. 

In a few weeks, world leaders will gather in Scotland for the United Nations’ 26th Climate Change Conference. Slow progress is being made, which is better than no progress and a lot better than a radical agenda that would involve permanently parking our cars and sitting in the cold as the economy falls apart.

We have higher hopes for action outside the United Nations’ big-picture talk fests. In Illinois, energy legislation that Gov. J.B. Pritzker just signed into law is flawed and costly, but it should succeed in curbing the state’s reliance on coal-burning power plants. Other states and cities are similarly committing to reduce their carbon footprints.

Even more important, companies across the globe are under pressure from investors to curb their companies’ environmental impact.  

For now, the best way to reduce carbon pollution is to use less energy (which all of us can do) and discourage demand for the dirty stuff. Demand for coal already is under pressure. Natural gas, your day will come.

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