Inside the Complicated Relationship Between Natural Gas and Climate Change

The abundant fossil fuel is helping reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but not enough to prevent a climate crisis.

A picture taken on December 10, 2012 in Rennes, western France shows a person lighting up a gas stove. The price of gas in France will increase of 2.4% on January 1, 2013, French Ecology minister announced on December 10, 2012.
National Journal
Amy Harder
Jan. 26, 2014, 10:05 a.m.

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.”

What We're Following See More »
UTAH REPUBLICAN
Former Sen. Bob Bennett Dies at 82
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Former Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Bennett was defeated in a primary in 2010 by Tea Party–backed Mike Lee.

Source:
GOOGLE SEARCHES SPIKE
Libertarians Getting a Second Look?
11 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
VEEPSTAKES
Trump Floats Gingrich, Kasich as Running Mates
11 hours ago
THE LATEST

Newt Gringrich is actively positioning himself as a possible VP nominee for Donald Trump, according to National Review. After a New York Times piece mentioned him as a possible running mate, he said, "It is an honor to be mentioned. We need a new Contract with America to outline a 100-day plan to take back Washington from the lobbyists, bureaucrats, unions, and leftists. After helping in 1980 with Reagan and 1995 as speaker I know we have to move boldly and decisively before the election results wear off and the establishment starts fighting us. That is my focus." Meanwhile, Trump told CNN he'd be "interested in vetting" John Kasich as well.

NO MORE CUTS
House Dems Push on Puerto Rico, Citing Zika
12 hours ago
THE LATEST

"House Democrats are stepping up pressure on Republicans to advance legislation addressing Puerto Rico’s worsening debt crisis by issuing a report arguing that austerity cuts can’t be sustained and have made the island more vulnerable to the mosquito-borne Zika virus." Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee released a report yesterday that argued "further sharp reductions in government spending can’t be a part of a legislative solution"—especially with a rainy season boosting the mosquito population and stressing an island health system already struggling to deal with the Zika virus.

Source:
WILL ANNOUNCE PICK BEFORE CONVENTION
Trump to Name VP Search Committee
14 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Donald J. Trump said on Wednesday that he expected to reveal his vice presidential pick sometime in July—before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland—but added that he would soon announce a committee to handle the selection process, which would include Dr. Ben Carson." He said he's inclined to name a traditional political figure, unlike himself.

Source:
×