Conventional wisdom tells us natural gas is helping us combat global warming. Like most bits of conventional wisdom, it's not that simple.
First the aforementioned wisdom: Natural gas is unquestionably helping the United States reduce its climate footprint. Our nation's greenhouse-gas emissions have dropped to levels not seen since the 1990s, thanks in part to this cleaner-burning fuel. Natural gas produces half the carbon emissions of coal and about a third fewer than oil. This is why everyone in the Obama administration, including the president himself, can't talk enough about the climate benefits of natural gas.
Three disparate factors make the relationship between natural gas and climate change not so unequivocally simple and good. Concerns about methane emissions persist, but notwithstanding that challenge, two greater problems loom: First, shifting significantly away from coal to natural gas doesn't get the planet anywhere close to the carbon-reduction levels scientists say we must reach. And second, while the natural-gas boom is great for the economy and the immediate reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, it has deflated the political urgency to cut fossil-fuel dependence, which was more compelling when we thought our resources of oil and natural gas were scarce. We have a great problem of energy abundance.
Let's first tackle the most explicit problem: emissions of methane, which is the primary component of natural gas and is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Numerous academic studies have tried to determine how much methane is actually escaping throughout the life cycle of natural gas, including during production and transmission of the fuel. Regardless of the results (and many more studies are in the works) this concern has gotten the attention of President Obama. In his climate agenda announced last summer, he ordered his administration to crack down on methane emissions.
"If it's not done correctly, the methane emissions are profound," Obama said in an interview with The New Yorker published last week. "But, if we can get that right, then for us to see natural gas supplant coal around the world the same way it's happening here in the United States, that's a net plus."
That brings us to the second problem: Yes, swapping out coal for natural gas does reduce carbon emissions initially, but in fact it ultimately doesn't help the planet avoid a rise of 2 degrees Celsius over the coming decades, the limit scientists around the world say we must not exceed in order to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. In 2011, the International Energy Agency released a World Energy Outlook report describing "a golden age of gas" and predicting that gas production would rise by 50 percent over the next 25 years.
"An increased share of natural gas in the global energy mix alone will not put the world on a carbon emissions path consistent with an average global temperature rise of no more than 2 [degrees Celsius]," the report states. "Natural gas displaces coal and to a lesser extent oil, driving down emissions, but it also displaces some nuclear power, pushing up emissions. This puts emissions on a long-term trajectory consistent with stabilizing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at around 650 parts per million CO2 equivalent, suggesting a long-term temperature rise of over 3.5 [degrees Celsius]."
The author of that report, IEA's chief economist Fatih Birol, put it more succinctly in an article in Scientific American shortly after the report was released.
"We are not saying that it will be a golden age for humanity — we are saying it will be a golden age for gas," Birol said. It drives home the basic notion that while natural gas emits half as much carbon as coal, it still produces twice as much as alternative fuel sources.
"It's a two-edge sword," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative think tank American Action Forum and former adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "Natural gas is a cleaner source that's also quite cheap and you can move people there easily. But, it also gets in the way of carbon [reductions] because it's a carbon resource. It's like coming up with cleaner cigarettes."
In a rarity, Holtz-Eakin used the same analogy as Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, one of the most outspoken environmental groups opposed to any increased natural-gas production. Going from coal to natural gas is like switching from "Marlboros to Camels," Brune said.
Now to the third problem: the lack of political urgency. In the era of energy scarcity we were in up until about seven years ago, natural gas was considered a logical bridge to renewable energy since it's cleaner-burning and provides reliable backup power for intermittent wind and solar energy. But now, seemingly overnight, we find ourselves on a bridge supply of natural gas that can go on for much longer than we all thought. That's got environmentalists more worried than ever, but the general population and many politicians are not. In fact, they're pretty happy about all this oil and natural gas, the jobs that are coming along with it, and the cheaper energy costs.
"What has happened more recently is there is not such the urgency on the climate-change side. And there is this euphoria — justifiable euphoria — in our ability to produce more oil and gas," said former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., whose home state is at the forefront of America's booming oil and gas industry. "It persuades some people to believe: 'OK, we're producing more and using less, our imports are down, so game, set, match, it's over. ' "
Dorgan, who now cochairs the Bipartisan Policy Center's Energy Project, continued: "I worry a little bit that there is this notion, 'Boy, we're just awash in oil and gas so that's it. We don't need to do anything more.' That's exactly the wrong thing."
Within the environmental community, the urgency is growing. The Sierra Club came out with its Beyond Natural Gas campaign in 2012, which is fighting against increased use of gas, including new gas-fired power plants, and export terminals. The Environmental Defense Fund, which works extensively with energy companies to help ensure fossil-fuel production is done safely and with the fewest methane emissions possible, launched a new initiative last summer called Smart Power that promotes renewable energy above all fossil fuels, including natural gas.
"There is an opportunity to have natural gas replace more coal," EDF President Fred Krupp said. "But, the bottom line is we have to accelerate to clean, smart power as fast as possible to avoid unnecessary shifts to natural gas, and that's why EDF has launched this Smart Power program to work in the states."
So now that we've run down why natural gas isn't quite as good for global warming as we thought, let's realize the reality we live in. Right now, renewables account for about 12 percent of our nation's electricity, with wind and solar making up 28 percent and 1 percent, respectively, of that 12 percent. By 2040, the Energy Information Administration predicts that the 12 percent will rise to 16 percent, with fossil fuels still accounting for the majority of our electricity. On a global scale, renewables accounted for 20 percent in 2011, and the International Energy Agency predicts that will rise to 31 percent by 2035. Their share balloons, but fossil fuels remain dominant. And, the benefits of the natural gas (and oil) boom, such as bringing economic growth, jobs and geopolitical leverage to the United States and other countries, are significant.
"I don't want to minimize the need to worry about the environmental impacts," said Marty Durbin, president and CEO of America's Natural Gas Alliance, the trade group representing natural-gas producers. "To simply say, well, here's our goal on climate, and not bring into account the needs of the economy, not just here but around the world, you're leaving out such a huge chunk of the equation, it's just not realistic."
Durbin sounds a bit like Obama in his comments to The New Yorker, when he said it wasn't "feasible" to think emerging economies like China and India can cut their carbon emissions significantly and quickly.
Even if global warming requires a swift response, our reality is stubbornly slow. And in this scenario, natural gas is a great option on the table.
"Energy policy is complex, predicated upon trillions of dollars of infrastructure and investment," said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former adviser to Obama. "It moves by evolution, not by revolution."