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
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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.”

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