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Published on July 12th, 2012 | by Joshua S Hill


New Study: Natural Gas is a Smart Move in Battle Against Global Warming… But Is It Really?

July 12th, 2012 by  

The future may indeed be a combination of wind, solar, and nuclear power, but according to Cornell Professor Lawrence M. Cathles, using natural gas as an energy source is going to be vital as an intermediary step on that road, and will prove imperative in the battle against climate change.

Cathles reached this conclusion after reviewing the most recent government and industry data on natural gas “leakage rates” during extraction, as well as recently developed climate models. His research was published in the most recent edition of the journal Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems. Cathles is a faculty member in Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

No matter the time frame considered, he concluded, substituting natural gas energy for all coal production and some oil production provides about 40 percent of the global warming benefit that a complete switch to low-carbon sources would deliver, making this a good intermediary step.

Other researchers (for example, leading climate scientist Ken Caldeira and former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold) have found that the climate change–related benefits of natural gas are not great enough to warrant its use as a bridge fuel (that we should just be going straight into renewable energy). Others have found the touted climate benefits of natural gas grossly exaggerated. However, this is clearly a point of debate within this field.

“From a greenhouse point of view, it would be better to replace coal electrical facilities with nuclear plants, wind farms and solar panels, but replacing them with natural gas stations will be faster, cheaper and achieve 40 percent of the low-carbon-fast benefit,” Cathles writes in the study. “Gas is a natural transition fuel that could represent the biggest stabilization wedge available to us.”

The study, entitled “Assessing the Greenhouse Impact of Natural Gas,” also reached a range of other conclusions about expanding the use of natural gas as an energy source, as well as the climate impact of “unconventional” gas drilling methods;

  • Although a more rapid transition to natural gas from coal and some oil produces a greater overall benefit for climate change, the 40-percent of low-carbon energy benefit remains no matter how quickly the transition is made, and no matter the effect of ocean modulation or other climate regulating forces.
  • Although some critics of natural gas as a transition fuel have cited leakage rates as high as 8 percent or more of total production during drilling – particularly hydraulic fracturing extraction – more recent industry data and a critical examination of Environmental Protection Agency data supports leakage rates closer to 1.5 percent for both conventional and hydrofractured wells.
  • Even at higher leakage rates, using natural gas as a transition to low-carbon energy sources is still a better policy than “business as usual” with coal and oil, due to the different rates of decay (and hence long-term global warming effect) of CO2 released in greater amounts by burning coal and oil and any methane released during natural gas extraction.
  • Using natural gas as a transition fuel supports the push to low-carbon sources by providing the “surge capacity” when needed, or a buffer when solar and wind production wanes.

“The most important message of the calculations reported here is that substituting natural gas for coal and oil is a significant way to reduce greenhouse forcing, regardless of how long the substitution takes,” Cathles writes. “A faster transition to low-carbon energy sources would decrease greenhouse warming further, but the substitution of natural gas for other fossil fuels is equally beneficial in percentage terms no matter how fast the transition.”

But the real question is: would a focus on natural gas really be enough to avoid runaway global warming that could doom human civilization?

Source: Cornell University
Image Source: EnergyTomorrow

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About the Author

I’m a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we’re pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket!

I also write for Fantasy Book Review (.co.uk), and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at about.me for more.

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  • Bob_Wallace

    Here’s my problem.  I think it is in our best interest to leave all carbon that is now underground underground.  But that is not an opinion shared by many, especially in the energy business.  

    If utility companies move from coal to NG, that’s a plus,  seems to me.  We’re barely under 400ppm CO2 and need to get back below 350ppm (probably lower).  All cuts count.

    If that’s the best we can get from fossil-heads right now, take it.  Thing is, those NG plants are dispatchable and they have fuel costs.  As we install more clean renewables (which do not have fuel costs) market forces will cause the NG turbines to stop spinning.

    As time goes on (in my hypothetical world) the price of wind, solar and other renewables drops.  People who want to make money will invest in wind, solar, backup, etc.  As clean energy ramps up, NG use declines.

    During the last days of NG turbines they will be very deep backup, coming into play for only a few days a year.

    Personally, I’m not worrying about NG plants (or Canadian oil sands and new pipelines).  I’m thinking that cheaper cleantech technologies will take care of those problems.

  • Ross

    It’s good to hear that natural gas probably retains its status as less bad than coal. But it doesn’t look like they attempted to model the impact of declining costs of renewable generation, storage coupled with better demand side management, greater distribution of renewable sources and more grid interconnection. 

  • Ronald Brak

    Arguing over whether or not natural gas is a bridge or not seems kind of pointless to me.  What needs to be done is to put a price on carbon and to steadily increase this price until it equals the cost of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere.  In response to the pricing in of this externality the situation will sort itself out as suppliers attempt to provide electricity at the lowest cost they can.  One a price is put on carbon it results in less coal use and more natural gas use in the short term as existing natural gas capacity is used more and coal capacity is used less.  It also results in the construction of enough solar and other low emission capacity to meet increased demand so no new fossil fuel plants, either coal or gas need ever be built.  In the long run it may be economical to burn some natural gas and then pay the expense of removing the CO2 from the atmosphere, or it may be cheaper to not emit the CO2 in the first place.

  • rkt9

    Natural Gas is not a clean energy, although it is cleaner than coal.  Depending on where and how it is burned it still emits many toxic substances.  http://www.epa.gov/ttnchie1/ap42/ch01/final/c01s04.pdf

    Burning fossils is disgusting!  Would you take a bath in a pool of dead organisms?  How does burning them and then breathing them make it any better?

    Solar, wind and geothermal are clean energies and we want to focus our attention to implimenting their use.  Think Solar!  Think Wind! Think Geothermal! 

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