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Monday, April 22, 2013

ExxonMobil study: life cycle carbon emissions, water consumption of Marcellus-fired power is half that of coal

A new study by ExxonMobil’s research arm, ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company, finds that the lifecycle carbon footprint of electric power generated by burning natural gas produced from the Marcellus shale is 53% lower than coal-fired power, and that freshwater consumption of Marcellus-fired electricity is about 50% that of coal-fired power.

The Exxon study joins a long list of other studies that reached similar conclusions about natural gas and carbon emissions. It also points out the high comparative water requirements of a continued reliance on coal – something that is often overlooked in the ongoing debate about shale gas.

The Exxon study and its predecessors underscore the necessity, from a climate perspective, of minimizing methane emissions from the production, transport, and distribution of natural gas.  Clearly, if that can be accomplished, natural gas can be our best available climate stabilization tool (and a near-zero carbon energy source if coupled with carbon capture and storage technology). It can at least be a hedge against the most catastrophic impacts of global climate disruption. But we must do more than that.  We must leverage responsibly-produced natural gas into a bridge to a renewable energy future.

None of this will happen on its own, or at least, fast enough to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.  Recent gas-driven U.S. carbon emissions gains have been reversed as natural gas prices inch back up from historic lows, showing how narrow the price window is that allows gas to outcompete coal. The invisible hand will not ensure timely, sustained, and deep cuts in  carbon emissions. Smart, aggressive energy policies are needed to ensure that the shale gas revolution becomes a climate victory.

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