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Friday, June 1, 2012

Is gas a climate villain or a solution?


Another criticism of the shale gas boom is that it will worsen - or at best minimally help – global climate disruption. 

It is a critical question.  Scientists say that a 2 degree Celsius (about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in global temperatures is the limit of safety, beyond which climate change is likely to become catastrophic and irreversible. Recently, IEA said that global carbon emissions rose 3.2 percent last year to a record high, placing us on track for 11-degrees of warming.  And just this week, the barrier of  400 PPM of atmospheric carbon dioxide was surpassed.
The initial alarm bell on gas’ climate role was rung in a paper that claimed that gas-fired electricity was “dirtier” than coal-fired power when it comes to climate change. That paper has since been thoroughly debunked by about seven subsequent studies; it is clear now that natural gas-fired electric power produces only about half of the carbon emissions of coal-fired power.  However, the original work raised the critical question of methane emissions from shale gas production. Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Methane emissions from gas production, transport, and distribution must – and can be – minimized.

So, the criticism is kept alive.  When the IEA’s Golden Rules for A Golden Age of Gas report was released, it was not unexpected that gas’ climate role was spun negatively: A global dash for "unconventional" gas will put the world on a path to temperature rises well above 2C, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has admitted.  

Certainly, gas can simply displace emissions rather than cut them altogether. In the US, gas-fired power stations are displacing coal-fired power, and US carbon emissions are decreasing as a result.  In Europe, however, last year, the consumption of coal rose by 6 percent - mainly a result of an excess of cheap coal on the market because of less consumption in the US. With no shale gas boom in Europe, gas prices are still high (a factor driving interest in exporting US natural gas).  The rise in coal consumption has increased emissions in the EU.

But – if methane emissions are minimized and gas’ share of the world’s power surpasses coal as in IEA’s ‘Golden Age’ scenario - will gas really be a climate culprit, as the story on the ‘Golden Rules’ suggests?

IEA said in releasing its report that "greater reliance on gas alone" could not achieve the international goal of limiting the global average temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

So, not a culprit, but not a panacea.

We will need better renewable energy policies, better energy policies overall,  and much more aggressive measures to reduce carbon emissions from all sources, while addressing the impacts of natural gas production.

We have no time to lose on any of these fronts.

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