"I think you've got both natural and man-made causes of. So yeah, I think man-made activity does contribute to that," Marty Durbin, the head of America's Natural Gas Alliance, told the Washington Examiner in an interview at his group's Washington headquarters. "But again, here's the best opportunity we have because we don't have to sacrifice anything from an economic and energy standpoint while also being able to both greatly reduce both greenhouse emissions, carbon emissions and other pollutants."
It's largely believed to be the first time Durbin, who joined the alliance last year after serving as second-in-command at the American Petroleum Institute, has made the link between human activity and climate change.
An overwhelming scientific consensus says human activity contributes to greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change, largely by burning fossil fuels. Many oil and gas companies, however, are loathe to acknowledge that, and the industry's Republican allies in Congress have denied or been skeptical of the science behind climate change.
Durbin's comments were in response to the threat he sees from environmental protests against liquefied natural gas export facilities. Several green groups have called on President Obama to forbid those exports, starting with scrapping a proposed project at Cove Point, Md., that is under review at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
He said the burgeoning opposition to Dominion Energy's Cove Point project points to a push similar to the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, where environmental groups have contributed to pressuring the Obama administration into several delays for the $5.4 billion Canada-to-Texas project.
He said the involvement of climate advocacy group 350.org, which has been a key player in the anti-Keystone XL movement, underscores that opposition to Cove Point isn't about the local environmental concerns FERC is evaluating.
"They're very clear about their agenda. This isn't about let's do it safely or let's make sure that — they've said the natural gas should stay in the ground. That's what this is about," Durbin said. "And that's fine, I respect that opinion. I think they're wrong, and just as with Keystone, they're using a single permit to try to get their point across."
Some environmental groups say Durbin is seeking to polish his agenda by touting the greenhouse gas emissions profile of natural gas, which is about half as carbon intensive as coal. It's still a fossil fuel, they say, so it will still contribute to climate change.
"It's great that Mr. Durbin accepts that man is warming the climate. The next step is for him to accept his industry's culpability in climate change, and work to phase out the use of fossil fuels — not promote them at the expense of zero carbon technologies like wind and solar," Daniel Kessler, spokesman with the Citizen Engagement Lab's Climate Lab, told the Examiner in an email.
Still, whether natural gas export facilities are the next Keystone XL is questionable. Those projects are more numerous than the cross-state pipeline and are largely matters of local concern, whereas TransCanada Corp. needs President Obama to sign off on a permit for Keystone XL.
On top of that, aside from Cove Point and the Jordan Cove project in Coos Bay, Ore., all the export applications the Energy Department has approved are in fossil fuel-friendly Texas and Louisiana.
Some environmental groups also have yet to figure out how they want to address the issue -- there were some notable holdouts, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, on a March letter from 16 green groups that urged Obama to scuttle the export projects.
Environmental groups, broadly, are concerned methane leaked during the drilling process could erase natural gas' climate advantage. But, if the industry solves that problem, some of those groups see increased use of natural gas in electricity generation as displacing coal and overall benefiting the climate in a transition period to renewable energy.
Other groups, however, note that natural gas is still a fossil fuel and that, if catastrophic levels of global warming are to be averted, the fuel must stay in the ground. That's pushed the Sierra Club to fight some of the export facilities in Texas and Louisiana. The natural gas industry, including Durbin, is also wary about whether Jordan Cove will be able to overcome local opposition.
Durbin said a FERC approval without any hiccups is key to quashing a more national movement from starting up. He compared it to Keystone XL, in which procedural delays inspired growth among the ranks of environmental protesters.
"If there's a very clear approval, I think that starts to diminish. It won't go away — I think the critics will continue to try to raise the same types of issues on other facilities. But I think if you can't stop it in a state like [liberal] Maryland, it does make it a lot harder to go to Gulf Coast states," Durbin said.