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Climate Change

Published on April 11th, 2012 | by Zachary Shahan


Natural Gas Is Bridge to Nowhere without Carbon Price & Serious Methane Leak Improvements

April 11th, 2012 by  


It is often argued that natural gas is an important bridge to a completely renewable energy economy. I have bought into that a bit, but some recent studies have really made the case for natural gas questionable, at best. One of those studies is linked above, and another is a new one published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Greater Focus Needed on Methane Leakage from Natural Gas Infrastructure” that finds that current methane leaks are higher than thought and largely or even completely undercut the climate benefits of switching from coal to natural gas.

Natural gas is mostly methane, and methane is an extremely strong greenhouse gas (though, a greenhouse gas with a shorter lifespan than CO2).

For more on this study and numerous others related to the statistics of methane leaked by natural gas, the global warming harm of natural gas vehicles, and other natural gas topics, check out this Climate Progress post. If you’d rather skip the details, here’s the summary at the end:

BOTTOM LINE:  If you want to have a serious chance at averting catastrophic global warming, then we need to start phasing out all fossil fuels as soon as possible.  Natural gas isn’t a true bridge fuel from a climate perspective. Carbon-free power is the bridge fuel until we can figure out how to go carbon negative on a large scale by the end of the century.”

Now, one important issue not discussed in Joe Romm’s piece above is whether or not natural gas limits or helps to hasten renewable energy growth. The assumption is that it limits such growth. I lean towards thinking it does, as well. However, an argument not discussed above is that natural gas makes it easier to switch to clean energy such as solar and wind since it is easily dispatchable, unlike coal or nuclear — when there’s a gap in power coming from solar, wind, hydro, or other such sources, natural gas can quickly be used to fill in the gap, whereas coal or nuclear take a long time to start up or shut down and, in order to have them filling the gap, they must be running more. While this may be a benefit of natural gas that makes it more appropriate than coal or nuclear in a largely renewable energy mix, I think we’d be better off going the route of more energy storage, a smarter grid and energy management systems, and a broad mix of a variety of renewable energy options. Why build a bridge when you you don’t need one?

Images: bridge to nowhere and bridge to nowhere via shutterstock

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About the Author

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession and Solar Love. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and Canada. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in. But he offers no professional investment advice and would rather not be responsible for you losing money, so don't jump to conclusions.

  • Brad

    Thanks for posting an actual link to the study itself. It allowed me to take the time to actually read it instead of just reading commentary about it. I found the study informative, though I think many of the rushed conclusions are off base. I found the following of interest:

    1. All assumptions in the study are based off estimates, mainly from the EPA, and even the study implies that better data for this is needed.

    2. The study notes, that the leakage problem is more than likely solvable because there is a clear economic incentive for producers to do so.

    3. The study admits that over longer periods of time, even with their current estimates, a modest long-term benefit would likely occur.

    4. The study fails to note, that shifting to natural gas for transportation would create a larger economic incentive for companies to more efficiently capture biomethane form landfills and the like. This in turn would also have an impact on the carbon footprint.

    5. The study admits, “Challenges also exist in the quantification of CH4 emissions from the extraction of coal”. Which means, essentially, there is no mine to home comparison for coal. This is relevant because we have to take into account the carbon footprint of the coal based locomotives, freight liners, and other heavy duty transportation vehicles that are switching to natural gas.

    Honestly, I consider myself an environmentally conscious person and I want to do my part to protect the Earth, however, this kind of negative commentary and rushed judgment is not just counterproductive, it’s detrimental. The fact is, there are tons of people proactively working to solve problems like the carbon footprint problem, the country’s dependence on foreign oil, the absence of a cohesive energy policy, and the methane leakage problem. Some of the people who are trying to solve these problems are themselves scientists and some of them actually work for the natural gas industry. I myself am much more interested in how these industry scientists can work to proactively solve problems like the leakage problem than I am in scientists who seek only to criticize the people who are offering real life, economically sound, solutions for real people. I think it is clear that the former will be of greater aid to society than that latter.

    I must point again to number 2 from above. We as Americans have a choice. We can proactively support the science trying to solve these problems or we can reactively criticize said scientists in support of a political ideology.

    The choice is yours to make.

  • Keevin C. Larson

    I am very pro renewable energy, CNG vehicles & natural gas as a whole. I base my focus on the facts and science not politics or what if’s. The fact is in the near future there is no effective renewable energy technology that can fully replace fossil fuels or nuclear energy to cost to efficiency generation for our world. To even attampt to do so now – would cause nations to implode and force most of us to live in caves.

    To close: Natural gas or another some what enviro friendly fossil fuel must be reconized as the bridge and most likely history will support this down the road of time.

    • Bob_Wallace

      That’s an assumption I’m not willing to make. I think we are short years from affordable batteries for electric vehicles. We’ve already got cheap wind generation to charge those batteries. And solar is affordable in some markets, on its way to cheap.

      I think what will happen is that we’ll build some more gas generation capacity and we’ll move part of our transportation fleet to NG. But before NG starts to play a large role in transportation, renewable electricity will start to eat away at any further NG growth.

      NG is artificially cheap right now. Once we burn our way through this glut prices should rise.

      NG can’t compete with cheap renewable electricity for transportation. Internal combustion engines are just too inefficient.

  • rtcdmc

    Your opinion piece suggests that because of leaks natural gas should be avoided. Fixing the leakage problem is not a policy question, but a simple engineering problem. The energy density variance between coal and natural gas has implications about suitable application, but the adaptability of natural gas indicate that those solutions should be pursued. More effort should be directed toward mitigating the undesirable effects during the fossil fuel combustion cycle, while the transition toward renewables occurs. Overlooking the demands of our “still” industrially based economy is little more than wishful thinking — to say nothing of the emerging economies of the BRIC nations.

    • from the Climate Progress post linked above:

      he problem for NGVs, as study coauthor and EDF chief scientist Steven Hamburg explained to me, is that the extra steps involved in using natural gas as a transport fuel — including fueling and onboard storage, *increases* the
      system leakage rate significantly. And these leaks are probably much harder to address. So the possibility that, say, the entire leakage rate for the heavy-duty vehicle infrastructure, from fracking to fueling, could ever be brought down to below 1% is pretty darn small.

      But as the title indicates, the recommendation is to stop the leaks, or cut them considerably (if they can do it, great), and put a price on carbon.

      • rtcdmc

        So, the fact that natural gas combustion reduces carbon monoxide emissions by 75%, nitrogen oxide by 49%, and particulate matter by 85% does not offset the possible 1% leakage factor? And we have a >1% leakage in the current system. You need to broaden your research. A good place to start would be U.S. DOE. In the real world, when a commodity costs less, has less regulatory burden, AND reduces environmental impact, it’s going to be utilized more often. Natural gas as a bridge fuel makes total sense, Mr. Hamburg’s analysis notwithstanding.

        • i’m sorry, but these are the most recent findings on natural gas pollution, and your numbers don’t match up. ignore the more detailed investigations, at your and your children’s peril.

          • rtcdmc

            An emotional appeal to my children? Really? I stand by the emissions numbers in my post. The link is http://www.afdcenergy.gov/afdc/vehicles/natural gas emissions.HTML. I thought that you might want to engage in discussions about actual solutions, which natural gas presents. But if you would rather maintain a mutual congratulation society with your friends about a quasi-religious environmental belief system, carry on. To be honest, this is the second article I have read on your site that is unrealistic, illogical, and emotional. I won’t be back, because there’s very little “Technica” here.

          • haha, 1 scientific study being discussed in the article above, discussion of another big one on the natural gas–climate change connection in an article linked at the top of the page (http://cleantechnica.com/2012/03/02/clean-energy-is-needed-now-climate-scientists-climate-economists-say/), and several more (as well as exclusive quotes from scientists) in another article linked above (http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/04/09/460384/natural-gas-is-a-bridge-to-nowhere-absent-a-carbon-price-and-strong-standards-to-reduce-methane-leakage/) — and we’re being unscientific.

            your link is not working, so i’m not sure how what’s in it compares to the above. but i’m discussing several of the most recent studies on natural gas. as you should be well aware, many govt agencies are quite slow at incorporating such info into their statistics.

            tell me how the studies above are wrong and we’ve got a starting point.

            but if you’d rather just avoid the matter by avoiding our site, you are certainly free to.

          • rtcdmc

            I’m on a smart phone. Try inserting underscores into the spaces of the URL. I would only ask you, what is your goal? Is it to reduce man’s environmental impact? Or something else? You can cite new environmental studies from now until doomsday. They’re confirming what we already know. Methane is 32 times worse than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What is the solution? Eliminating the negative effects with engineering. Because, like it or not, we are in an era of incremental improvement. We have not identified the perfect alternative, which seems to be the only solution you are willing to accept. If you want to attract others to your site, tell us something we did not know, or analyze what we know in a new way. What you currently have is an echo chamber.

          • tried that. and tried hyphens. didn’t work.

            “Is it to reduce man’s environmental impact?” yes.

            natural gas is considered green by some, and i have gone back and forth on this. for me, this new research (the subject discussed in the article and linked above) is useful in evaluating if natural gas is actually as green as the industry and most politicians promote it as being. the short answer, at this point, is far from it.

            if i saw good news on making natural gas much greener, i’d be happy and post on that. i will repost and write on anything related to this topic that i think is really worth knowing and sharing. i’m not seeing info on natural gas being much greener, as is widely touted and conventional wisdom these days.

            my intention is to keep people informed, since this is a topic we might have a bit of influence on.

            if you’ve got some information adding on to or countering these multiple studies, i’d love to see it. natural gas is likely to be a significant player in the years to come — i’d be more than happy if it were greener than it is.

  • jburt56

    They always do this–lower the price of carbon to kill off the emerging competition. During the Reagan Era it was “morning in America”. If you fall for it they’ll have you over a barrel again and you’ll need a proctologist.

    • rtcdmc

      Just curious, were you alive during the 1980’s? After the long night of the 1970s, economically and militarily, it did seem as though the nation had turned a corner. There was a clear difference in leadership between Reagan and Carter. To suggest otherwise indicates a simple partisan preference.

      • centerroad

        He didn’t suggest there wasn’t a difference in leadership, in fact he was highlighting it. Carter had a strong alternative fuels program, Reagan ended it and subsidized a “drill baby drill” policy.

        To suggest otherwise indicates you are defending Reagan’s big oil policy vs. a policy which would have put us 30 years ahead of where we are now.

        • rtcdmc

          Alternative fuels like … natural gas? The fuel that the article dismissed? One of the fuels used by the program? The Alternative Fuels program could not satisfy the requirements of the Federal loan guarantee program. There was not enough return to justify the spending. When it was resurrected in the form of ethanol subsidies, it had a minor beneficial environmental effect, with the unintended effect of an increase in food prices worldwide. I am not posturing politically. I think that petroleum companies enjoy too much political influence. But for the foreseeable future, internal combustion is going to be with us. We either want to mitigate its effects with incremental improvements or we want to hold our breath and pout. I’ve cited the beneficial emissions reductions above, do you dispute them?

          • centerroad

            “The Alternative Fuels program could not satisfy the requirements of the Federal loan guarantee program. There was not enough return to justify the spending.”

            That’s a ridiculous assertion.

            Further, the Reagan subsidies had little return on investment. Were you even alive back then?

            His subsidies for oil drilling and equipment were almost entirely unsuccessful, leaving the streets of Texas stacked with rusting drill rigs, one dry hole after another left the program bankrupt, and Texas suffered thru a boom and bust which cause a triple dip recession there.

            The roads of Houston were literally STACKED up with useless equipment.

            Lets not change history, lets learn from it.

          • rtcdmc

            Yes, I was alive then, and remember quite well. As far as learning from history, we’re about to repeat the worst mistake of that period– the windfall profits tax. As far as the article contents, we’ll have to disagree about the applicability of natural gas. In my opinion, it represents a good transition fuel.

  • Ross

    I like the comment at the end about going carbon negative by the end of the century. Hopefully the transition away from fossil fuels will become so mainstream in the next couple of decades that the next target of carbon negative won’t be delayed as far out as that.

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