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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Natgas and climate: It’s all about leverage

A new study from The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) finds that increased domestic use of natural gas as a replacement for other fossil fuels such as coal or oil can continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but gas must ultimately be used to support the deployment of more renewable energy to effectively combat climate disruption.

Leveraging Natural Gas to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions reaches a number of conclusions and recommendations that should be familiar to readers of this blog:

The expanded use of natural gas—as a replacement for coal and petroleum—can help our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the near- to mid-term, even as the economy grows.
Substitution of natural gas for other fossil fuels cannot be the sole basis for long-term U.S. efforts to address climate change because natural gas is a fossil fuel and its combustion emits greenhouse gases. To avoid dangerous climate change, greater reductions will be necessary than natural gas alone can provide. Ensuring that low-carbon investment dramatically expands must be a priority. Zero-emission sources of energy, such as wind, nuclear and solar, are critical, as are the use of carbon capture-and-storage technologies at fossil fuel plants and continued improvements in energy efficiency.
Along with substituting natural gas for other fossil fuels, direct releases of methane into the atmosphere must be minimized. It is important to better understand and more accurately measure the greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas production and use in order to achieve emissions reductions along the entire natural gas value chain.
The report makes a number of sector-specific conclusions and recommendations:
  • Natural gas and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar can be complementary components of the power sector. Natural gas plants can quickly scale up or down their electricity production and so can act as an effective hedge against the intermittency of renewables. The fixed fuel price (zero) of renewables can act a hedge against potential natural gas price volatility.
  • It's important to encourage the efficient direct use of natural gas in buildings, where natural gas applications have a lower greenhouse gas emission footprint compared with other energy sources.
  • The efficient use of natural gas in the manufacturing sector needs to be continually encouraged, and policy – especially at the state-level - is needed to overcome existing barriers to deployment of combined heat and power systems.
  • Natural gas-related technologies, such as microgrids, microturbines, and fuel cells, have the potential to increase the amount of distributed generation used in buildings and manufacturing. These technologies can be used in configurations that reduce greenhouse gas emissions when compared with the centralized power system.
  • The greatest opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions using natural gas in the transportation sector is through fuel substitution in fleets and heavy-duty vehicles.
  • Transmission and distribution pipelines must be expanded to ensure adequate supply for new regions and to serve more thermal loads in manufacturing, homes, and businesses. 

As the report clearly demonstrates, natural gas can be an effective tool in the fight against climate disruption, but it is no substitute for - and must be used effectively in - a comprehensive and smart energy policy


  1. John - This methane leakage thing seems to be a deal-breaker on using the current technology to extract shale gas, plus the whole venture of shale gas development is pushing us toward irreversible climate change that threatens our very existence. What do you make of reports like these. -

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting, Steve.

    Methane leakage is still not well understood beyond the fact that it is a serious threat - we don't yet have an accurate handle on the actual amounts of leakage from all of the sources. You can look at the various posts I've written on the issue to get an idea of the varying range of leakage estimates. Much more study and data are needed - quickly.

    That said, I don't think methane leakage is a deal breaker IF - and it is a big if - leakage can be minimized across the entire value chain, from production to end user distribution.

    Still, as the C2ES and other studies have pointed out, shale gas - responsibly produced and smartly used as part of a real energy plan (which we do not have) - is at best a short- to medium-term tool to lower CO2 emissions. It would be better yet if natgas-fired power plants were equipped with carbon capture and storage technology. But if we are to confront the magnitude of climate change, there is no substitute for energy efficiency and zero-carbon energy. It will take time to get these technologies to scale - that is where gas comes in if we are smart enough to use it in that way. See and