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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Stanford study - and others - say natgas' climate benefits will be small

Stanford University’s Energy Modeling Forum has published a new report that models the role that new natural gas supplies will play in North American energy markets.  It finds that they will do little to reduce overall CO2 emissions over the next several decades.

The report’s summary says that “Natural gas has lower emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides at the burnertip than coal and oil.” True enough, though it doesn't mention vast reductions in soot and mercury pollution that are gained in a switch from coal to gas, and misses mention of how those qualities can significantly reduce toxic air pollution - and cancer and autism. Still, it says that:     
continued shale gas development within North America is likely to have more sweeping impacts on future energy prices than on the economy or the environment. Shale development…boosts the economy by $70 billion annually over the next several decades. Although this amount appears large, it represents a relatively modest 0.46 percent of the US economy. 
Shale development has relatively modest impacts on carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions, particularly after 2020. Since 2006, electricity generation has become less carbon intensive as its natural gas share increased from 16 to 24 percent and its coal share decreased from 52 to 41 percent. Over future years, this trend towards reducing emissions becomes less pronounced as natural gas begins to displace nuclear and renewable energy that would have been used otherwise in new powerplants…

The Stanford study says that the economy will also play a role: 
Another contributor to the modest emissions impact is the somewhat higher economic growth that stimulates more emissions. Reinforcing this trend is the greater fuel and power consumption resulting from lower natural gas and electricity prices. 
The Stanford findings are not surprising. The  Union of Concerned Scientists, other smart energy thinkers - including our new Energy Secretary -  and other reports from the International Energy Agency have concluded that a transition from a coal- to a natural gas-dominated electricity system would not be sufficient to meet U.S. climate goals. 

The bottom line is this.  Natgas is enabling significant short-term improvements in carbon emissions, reductions in carbon intensity of the economy, and reductions in toxic air pollution.  Because natgas combustion is still a significant source of carbon emissions, and because methane emissions from natgas production and transmission are still huge unresolved issues, natgas remains at best a short-term climate stabilization tool.  

The Stanford findings might be significantly different with different energy policies. Natgas could have a much more benefical impacts and a longer future in our energy mix – without distorting investment decisions in cleaner technologies – if carbon capture and storage technology was required on natgas plants - and a price is placed on carbon. Will we ever see that day?

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