A full-page ad in The Washington Post states in big letters, “Natural gas is hot stuff.” A bit of irony if I’ve ever seen one. The smaller print of the ad extols the virtues of natural gas, including its abundance in the U.S. and the energy independence its use will bring. “Natural gas consists mainly of methane,” according to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Methane is a greenhouse gas with a warming affect 23 times greater than carbon dioxide, Yes, natural gas is hot stuff indeed.
Natural gas could make up one-quarter of the world’s energy supply by 2035, which would cause a 3.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise. There is a scientific consensus that limiting the increase in global temperatures to two degrees Celsius could avoid the worst-case climate change scenarios. The IEA report says that limiting the increase to two degrees Celsius “requires a greater shift to low-carbon energy sources.”
An analysis of methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing, a method to drill for shale, found that “3.6 percent to 7.9 percent of the methane from shale-gas production escapes to the atmosphere in venting and leaks over the lifetime of a well.”
Using natural gas as a short term replacement for coal makes sense, as a Grist article points out. “In fact, the only way that natural gas won’t be a major contributor to making this planet catastrophically hot is if it displaces coal in the very short term and then is replaced shortly thereafter by zero carbon energy.”
Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA, told a press conference in London, “While natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, it is still a fossil fuel. Its increased use could muscle out low-carbon fuels such as renewables and nuclear, particularly in the wake of Fukushima. An expansion of gas use alone is no panacea for climate change.”
Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA, said, “If gas prices come down, that would put a lot of pressure on governments to review their existing renewable energy support policies…We may see many renewable energy projects put on the shelf.” Thus, using more natural gas and less renewable energy means the planet would continue to get much hotter. However, I doubt GE had climate change in mind when it approved of the ad.