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Sarah Lozanova headshot

Natural Gas Detrimental to Low-Carbon Economy, Study Says


Compared to dirty coal, natural gas looks like a clean fuel. As fracking becomes more widespread, natural gas is becoming more abundant. It is often touted as a bridge fuel, serving our energy needs until technology advances in renewable energy and carbon capture and sequestration are achieved. Unfortunately, this thinking is flawed, and natural gas may in fact be a culprit holding back clean energy development and use, according to a new study that uses integrated assessment models.

“We didn’t really know how our first experiment would turn out, but we were surprised how little difference abundant gas made to total greenhouse gas emissions even though it was dramatically changing the global energy system,” said James “Jae” Edmonds, chief scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). “When we saw all five modeling teams reporting little difference in climate change, we knew we were onto something.”

The potent secret of natural gas: Fugitive methane

It is often said that natural gas produces half the carbon emissions of a coal power plant. Certainly, this is a bold step in the right direction, right? Unfortunately it is often overlooked that methane, an odorless and colorless gas, is the primary component of natural gas.

If carbon emissions seem like bad news for the climate, consider that methane is 84 time more potent than carbon dioxide in the short-term. Although it doesn't remain the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, it is exponentially more effective in trapping heat for two decades.

During natural gas production, processing, storage, distribution and use, methane is inevitably released into the atmosphere. Given the complexity of the natural gas supply chain in the U.S., this is a very difficult issue to measure and tackle.

Some tangible actions have been taken in recent years to address methane pollution: The Obama administration created a methane strategy that may lead to federal regulation; Colorado issued a set of air regulations (the first to address methane); and Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Ct) and Susan Collins (R-Me) introduced  the 2014 Super Pollutants Act.

Displacing use of lower carbon energy

One thing that shatters the concept of natural gas as a bridge fuel is economic behavior. Given the abundance and low cost of natural, it is difficult for clean energy to compete with the fuel without policies in place. Considering that in the best case scenario, natural gas is merely a bridge fuel and doesn't provide a long-term solution to climate change, it is counterproductive from a climate perspective for it to displace the use of clean energy.

With simple supply and demand market forces at play, this trend will continue, especially since incentives for natural gas use fuel demand. U.S. subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear are 12 times higher than for renewables. This in turn encourages natural gas technology to advance, which lowers prices and reliability, furthering the trend. More is needed to encourage the development and use of clean energy, such as policies that encourage low-carbon technologies and financial incentives, such as the Production Tax Credit for wind energy.

Low energy costs encourage greater energy use

With the increased use of fracking, the natural gas supply has expanded considerably, causing prices to drop. When energy prices are low, people are incentivized to use more.

“Abundant gas may have a lot of benefits — economic growth, local air pollution, energy security, and so on," says Haewon McJeon, an economist at the PNNL. "There’s been some hope that slowing climate change could also be one of its benefits, but that turns out not to be the case.”

Image credit: Flickr/Seth Anderson

Sarah Lozanova headshotSarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.

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