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Lost in the debate over fracking and drilling to extract natural gas in the US and abroad rather than pursuing supposedly clean renewables is this: natural gas is actually greener.

In New Geography Matt Ridley starts off by asking which view homeowners would prefer — a modest gas well or a towering, noisy commercial windmill — and then explains that choosing wind means you get both (via NewsAlert):

Wind turbines slice thousands of birds of prey in half every year, including white-tailed eagles in Norway, golden eagles in California, wedge-tailed eagles in Tasmania. There’s a video on YouTube of one winging a griffon vulture in Crete. According to a study in Pennsylvania, a wind farm with eight turbines would kill about a 200 bats a year. The pressure wave from the passing blade just implodes the little creatures’ lungs. You and I can go to jail for harming bats or eagles; wind companies are immune.

Still can’t make up your mind? The wind farm requires eight tonnes of an element called neodymium, which is produced only in Inner Mongolia, by boiling ores in acid leaving lakes of radioactive tailings so toxic no creature goes near them.

Not convinced? The gas well requires no subsidy – in fact it pays a hefty tax to the government – whereas the wind turbines each cost you a substantial add-on to your electricity bill, part of which goes to the rich landowner whose land they stand on. Wind power costs three times as much as gas-fired power. Make that nine times if the wind farm is offshore. And that’s assuming the cost of decommissioning the wind farm is left to your children – few will last 25 years.

Decided yet? I forgot to mention something. If you choose the gas well, that’s it, you can have it. If you choose the wind farm, you are going to need the gas well too. That’s because when the wind does not blow you will need a back-up power station running on something more reliable. But the bloke who builds gas turbines is not happy to build one that only operates when the wind drops, so he’s now demanding a subsidy, too.

Thanks to fracking and other adaptations of well-developed technology, we can now access vast pools of methane. That’s not just in the US either, but all over the world. Instead of running out of so-called fossil fuel (Ridley writes that the origin of this methane may be much older), we’re now looking at centuries of supply. That has created consternation in central Asian nations like Iran and Russia, which had hoped to corner the market on natural gas in the Eastern Hemisphere, and with the enviros of the Western Hemisphere, who had hoped that it become so expensive that it would make the higher costs of wind and solar more competitive.

Remember when the US pushed hard to build LNG terminals in its ports so that we could import natural gas? According to Ridley, those terminals are now either idle, or serving as export stations.

But what about the carbon? As it turns out, natural gas is better than most of the alternatives — and would still be needed for the “intermittent and resource-depleting” renewables:

Wind cannot even help cut carbon emissions, because it needs carbon back-up, which is wastefully inefficient when powering up or down (nuclear cannot be turned on and off so fast). Even Germany and Denmark have failed to cut their carbon emissions by installing vast quantities of wind.

Yet switching to gas would hasten decarbonisation. In a combined cycle turbine gas converts to electricity with higher efficiency than other fossil fuels. And when you burn gas, you oxidise four hydrogen atoms for every carbon atom. That’s a better ratio than oil, much better than coal and much, much better than wood. Ausubel calculates that, thanks to gas, we will accelerate a relentless shift from carbon to hydrogen as the source of our energy without touching renewables.

Let’s not forget that the green issues go beyond the extraction of neodymium. The green movement wants to move to electric vehicles as replacements for the internal-combustion automobile, one of their betes noires for pollution and carbon-dioxide emissions through the consumption of gasoline. However, putting tens of millions of automobiles on the electrical grid will create huge demand for reliable and consistent energy production, which means that — at least under the current condition of renewables — we’re going to have to burn a lot more fossil fuel or build a lot of nuclear-power plants. Despite decades of government subsidies, we are nowhere near close to the kind of mass production in wind and solar energy to take on that demand, or even today’s existing demand, reliably or intermittently.

And then there’s the issue of making and disposing of the large battery arrays necessary for electric cars to run, which ruin the economics of personal transportation. That will require a lot more mining, much more traumatic mining than fracking, in order to get the limited amount of lithium and rare-earth elements needed for the mass production of battery arrays. On top of that, the US doesn’t have much of these ores and minerals, which will make us even more dependent on imports for energy than we are now. When all of these batteries expire, where do we end up storing the extremely dirty waste? There are no “green” answers to that question.

Instead of pushing for electric vehicles that have extremely limited range and zero independence from the electrical grid, we should push to move vehicles to natural gas — a technology that has existed for at least 30 years, and one in which I have personal experience. We could shift the use of petroleum to specialized transport fuels like jet fuel, which would greatly reduce or eliminate our dependence on imports, and let the natural-gas technology boost our economy so that we can allow the private sector to properly develop the next generations of energy technology.

We have an opportunity to actually achieve real energy independence by shifting our efforts away from wind and solar and adopting a natural-gas infrastructure instead. The best part? It won’t require an avalanche of subsidies to succeed, either. All we need to do is get government and its social engineers out of the way.

Hot Air, 7 November 2011