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?
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