Natural Gas: Guardrails For A Potential Climate Bridge


May 28 2015 | The New Climate Economy | Per Klevnas, Michael Lazarus, Kevin Tempest

A  new paper from The New Climate Economy, a group formed to advocate for the economic benefits of acting on climate change, outlines what exactly natural gas as a “bridge fuel” could look like in coming years.  Gas has been touted as that bridge fuel by the Obama Administration and others, easing the transition from coal-powered electricity with its high carbon emissions to a green future of zero carbon and renewables. The shale gas boom of recent years and a significant fall in natural gas prices have pushed more and more utilities away from coal and into gas. This paper is a welcome analysis of the benefits of that gas bridge as well as the potential costs and challenges.

First, the basics: natural gas is the least carbon-intensive fossil fuel and producing electricity from natural gas could cut carbon emissions in half compared to coal. But of concern, according to this paper’s authors, is that a long term commitment to gas may “lock out” the development of zero-carbon renewables:

“While building out new infrastructure for the supply and use of natural gas can support climate goals by avoiding the “lock-in” of new coal power plants, it also poses risks, for example, of “locking-out” other, lower-emission alternatives. Achieving one while avoiding the other will require careful policy design.”

Hence, battles in many places across the country, like this one against new gas infrastructure in San Diego.

For natural gas to really work as the transition to a global low-carbon future, the authors suggest critical “guard rails” are needed:

  • Limit demand growth in electricity usage — that is, increase efficiencies
  • Manage and reduce methane leakage, a significant greenhouse gas that can accompany natural gas extraction and distribution
  • Direct gas supplies to the power sector where they have the biggest impact on reducing CO2 emissions
  • Make sure natural gas development does not hamper the development of renewables.

Since low-cost and abundant natural gas is a product of the shale boom, or hydraulic fracturing, the authors insist that the gas industry needs to maintain a solid “social license to operate” and must address local environmental concerns about air and water pollution. But they note that is do-able, quoting the International Energy Agency:

“the technologies and know-how exist for unconventional gas to be produced in a way that satisfactorily meet these challenges, but a continuous drive from governments and industry to improve performance is required if public confidence is to be maintained or earned.” Indeed, the prospects and merits of an abundant gas future depend on whether such a drive is successful.

So, while natural gas as a bridge offers many benefits, its widespread adoption could create problems of its own. How do you build up all this natural gas infrastructure, only to plan for it to plateau and decrease in use in the next two or three decades? The authors suggest that those assets may be “stranded,” or that the transition to lower emissions will be delayed.

“The viability of natural gas as a bridge may hinge on this trade-off.”

In addition, if energy efficiencies are not adopted, and low cost gas means people use more electricity, more power, then the increase in emissions “fully offsets the emission benefits” from substituting natural gas for coal.