Booming Natural Gas Won’t Slow Global Warming

Natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, but that’s not enough to reduce global carbon emissions, researchers say.

Waste gas is burned off at a hydraulic fracturing site in March 2014 near Buttonwillow, Calif. Five research teams found that natural gas alone won't curb climate change.

Waste gas is burned off at a hydraulic fracturing site in March near Buttonwillow, Calif. Five research teams found that natural gas alone won’t curb climate change.

By Alan Neuhauser

Beaver County Blue via US News & World Report

Oct. 15, 2014 – Natural gas won’t save us.

Despite the lofty claims of industry groups and President Barack Obama, the so-called natural gas revolution will not discernibly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, putting the globe no closer to averting catastrophic climate change, according to five independently developed models conducted by teams of researchers around the world and summarized in a new paper Wednesday.

"The high hopes that natural gas will help reduce global warming because of technical superiority to coal turn out to be misguided,” study co-author Nico Bauer, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said in a statement. “The main factor here is that an abundance of natural gas leads to a price drop and expansion of total primary energy supply."

For this very reason, most of the studies projected, widespread natural gas consumption actually will make global warming worse.  

“Abundant gas alone will not solve climate change on its own in the absence of climate change mitigation policy,” says economist Haewon McJeon of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who helped lead the American research team. “These five models are very different in its architecture and assumptions. The one thing we agreed on is it’s not going to solve climate change.”

The Energy Department, as part of Obama’s broader energy plan, has made natural gas development the foundation of its "all of the above" strategy to produce energy and reduce emissions. A spokesman who called U.S. News about the study declined to talk on the record, instead referring to a statement from another spokesman that focused on the department’s support for new renewable energy technology.

"The report released today reinforces the point that a strategy to develop all of our abundant energy resources, paired with effective climate policies, will move us toward a low-carbon energy future," the statement by Bill Gibbons said. "The Department of Energy is aggressively advancing energy technologies that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change risks."

For the past decade, as new drilling technologies have opened giant natural gas deposits in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic, industry groups and lawmakers have portrayed the fuel as a "clean” energy source that could wean America off dirtier fossil fuels and foreign oil, ultimately serving as a "bridge" to zero-emissions renewables like wind and solar.

"Natural gas enables expansion of renewable energy because it is really the only electricity source that offers flexible baseload generation at times when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining," says Dan Whitten, spokesman for America’s Natural Gas Alliance, which represents gas exploration and production companies. "With the abundance of natural gas and its low-emissions profile, it will be and should be a long-term and significant part of any energy portfolio."

As Obama declared in his 2014 State of the Union address in January, gas "can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change."

Natural gas, when burned, does indeed emit far fewer emissions than coal, still the world’s most abundant fuel source. Researchers were curious, though, whether that would be enough to help reduce global carbon emissions over the long term. Teams from the U.S. and Australia, independently of one another, set out to answer this question early last year.

Meeting later at a conference and learning of one another’s projects, McJeon says, they also brought aboard teams from Italy, Austria and Germany. All five teams went on to independently build models that would project the effect of natural gas on carbon emissions through 2050, making sure to include a wide range of economic factors and multiple possible scenarios.

“Our models are as comprehensive as it gets,” McJeon says. “We integrate energy, economy and climate in an internally consistent framework. It’s not just an energy model.”

The findings were "a surprise," says chief scientist Jae Edmonds, a co-author of the paper.

"We told Haewon he had made a mistake, he had to go back and redo it," Edmonds says. "Eventually, he convinced us that, no, there were no mistakes."

For one, millions of tons of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – are believed to have escaped into the atmosphere during natural gas drilling and extraction processes, a phenomenon known as “fugitive emissions.” Also, natural gas has gotten so cheap that it’s displacing not only coal, but the cleanest possible sources of energy, too: wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower.

“Gas is abundant and low-cost, so it’s going to replace all energy forms,” McJeon says.

Then there’s the issue of the “scale effect.” Cheap fuel helps spur economic growth, and when the economy grows, people are consuming more gas and goods, and emissions inevitably rise. Gas consumption and emissions, in other words, scale up.

“If you have something low-cost and abundant, you are going to consume more of it,” McJeon explains. “Natural gas is cheaper, electricity is cheaper and as energy gets cheaper, goods get cheaper and people consume more.”

Plus, when natural gas is cheap, it removes incentives for investing in renewables. And that’s where government policy comes in – the kind that’s been vociferously opposed by industry groups and conservative lawmakers.

“Some kind of complementary policies have to go in and make natural gas beneficial for climate change mitigation,” Edmonds says. “There are a lot of policies we can implement.”

Such policies include renewable portfolio standards, which set targets for how much energy must be produced by renewables; cap-and-trade programs like the mid-Atlantic’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which incentivizes emissions reductions; and regulations to reduce certain emissions outright, like fugitive methane emissions.

Any of these would help keep gas from displacing renewables, experts say. The five research teams, in fact, modeled what would happen if gas replaced coal exclusively. The result: Four showed an emissions reduction (the fifth still found greenhouse gases would increase, driven by an overall expansion of gas consumption).

“Any policy is going to help,” Edmonds says. “Anything that’s going to go after the emissions, then you have the benefit of having abundant and inexpensive natural gas, and the policy helps give you that benefit on the emissions reduction side.”

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