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Saturday, July 27, 2013

CAP: U.S. natural gas use must peak by 2030

A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) finds that the use of natural gas for electricity generation must peak by 2030 if the United States “is to meet its climate goals and avoid the worst impacts of global warming.”

The CAP report underscores what has long been recognized: that to meet the internationally-accepted target of keeping global temperature within 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the U.S. will have to cut its CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050.  Because of that – even though gas emits only half the CO2 of coal when burned for electricity - natural gas is only a near-term climate tool – and that only if methane emissions from the entire natural gas value chain are minimized.

The only way that natural gas can have a longer-term role in our energy portfolio without exacerbating climate disruption is - as I and others have noted - for carbon capture and storage technology to be applied to natgas power plants. That seems unlikely at the moment.  The natgas industry is asleep at the switch.

But CAP’s focus on natural gas is, alas, more academic than reality-based.  Coal-fired electricity generation and U.S. carbon emissions have come roaring back as natural gas prices rebound and begin to rise beyond the very narrow band where gas can displace (artificially) cheap coal. U.S. Energy Information Administration data show that natural gas-fired generation is down 13.4% in the first 5 months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012.  Coal generation is up 11% and is displacing gas.  

It's obvious that The Invisible Hand will not lead us out of our self-imposed climate peril - unless an accurate price is placed on carbon, now. If we lack the political will to impose that price, and to reduce coal use, focusing on the limited climate utility of natgas strikes me as missing the much larger point.

Still, the CAP report is a sobering reminder of the immensity of the climate and energy challenge we face – and of the urgent need to start making decisions – and choices – now. 

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