#1 cleantech news, reviews, & analysis site in the world. Subscribe today. The future is now.

Air Quality

Published on February 3rd, 2014 | by John Farrell


Natural Gas Isn’t A Bridge Fuel, It’s A Gateway Drug

February 3rd, 2014 by  

In his State of the Union, President Obama added to the conventional wisdom that supplanting coal with natural gas will act as a bridge toward a climate solution. Unfortunately, gas is more of a gateway drug than a bridge to a clean energy future.

1) It’s still a major greenhouse gas.  Sure, natural gas is cleaner than coal, but that’s setting a pretty low bar.  Even if my shit smells sweeter than most, it’s still shit.

Natural gas–powered electricity still pours 1.22 lbs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every kilowatt-hour of electricity it produces. That’s 6 tons of CO2 per year from every household in America if its electricity were completely generated with natural gas.

And that’s the emissions from the stuff that actually gets to the power plant. The EPA has collected industry-reported data suggested that leakage from the drilling, production, and pipeline process runs close to 1.5%.  Other studies show much higher leakage rates.  At a 2.7% leakage rate, gas is no better than coal for the climate.

2) Gas for electricity competes with gas for heating (and gas for transportation).  The recent “polar vortex” events have meant spikes in home heating costs.  As Forbes notes, “The cold affected electricity generation systems, particularly natural gas, in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast such that supply weakened and prices skyrocketed. In New England, natural gas faltered so much that regional grid administrator ISO-New England had to bring up dirtier coal and oil plants to try to make up the difference.”

With gas prices as volatile as history shows (data below from EIA), increasing gas reliance in sectors other than home heating (e.g. electricity, transportation) is just asking for Oil Crisis v2.


3) In electricity and transportation, we have much cleaner options. If you want a cleaner way to heat your home than natural gas, you’re going to have to pay a lot more.  Solar hot water, geothermal, and other renewable options are not yet cost competitive.

But in the electricity market, renewables are more cost-effective than natural gas.  Wind power is routinely the lowest cost wholesale power, as the following cost comparison from investment bank Lazard (from 2011) illustrates.


Solar power plants are competitive in a different way. They tend to deliver power right when natural gas power plants operate, at periods of peak demand (which is, in part, why a judge recently told a Minnesota utility to buy solar instead of building new natural gas power plants).  Even back in 2011, California utilities were buying energy from solar on long-term contracts for less than the cost of energy from natural gas power plants.

Furthermore, because they have zero fuel cost, wind and other renewables tend to exert downward pressure on wholesale electricity costs, as shown in the following graphic.


In transportation, natural gas loses to electric vehicles. Natural gas vehicles can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20-30% over gasoline vehicles, but electric vehicles would lower emissions by 50-75% in most regions of the country, and they get better as grid electricity gets cleaner.   And electric vehicles cost less per mile driven (5¢ compared to 6.7¢ for natural gas). Additionally, why build an entirely new refueling network for natural gas vehicles when every gas station and home in America already has a power outlet?

4) Building natural gas infrastructure chains us to a carbon-based energy future for 50 years. Electric utilities build power plants with 50 year life expectancies, same for gas companies and pipelines.  Every dollar invested in dirty gas infrastructure is a dollar not spent building solar and wind farms, not spent researching battery technologies, and not spent helping communities capture the most of their local energy dollar. And it’s committing us to burn more natural gas for decades, during a time which greenhouse gas emissions must fall precipitously to avoid the major consequences of climate chaos.

A Relapse

Expanding natural gas use in electricity and transportation is risky, it’s dirty, and – most of all – it’s unnecessary.

The electricity sector is already undergoing a rapid transformation to a carbon-free system, driven by renewable energy standards and rapidly falling costs for wind and solar power. Converting coal plants to natural gas makes short-term sense, but building new fossil fuel infrastructure when we have free-fuel renewables is inane.

The transportation sector has already identified a low-carbon alternative to gasoline vehicles with an in-place fuel network. Electric vehicles will only get more efficient and cleaner as they grow in numbers and as the grid gets greener.

Americans are finally on a course to wean ourselves from an unhealthy addiction to fossil fuels in two major sectors of our economy.  Natural gas isn’t a bridge, it’s a relapse.  And it’s time we admit it.

Photo Credit: Roadsidepictures

Tags: , , ,

About the Author

directs the Democratic Energy program at ILSR and he focuses on energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. His seminal paper, Democratizing the Electricity System, describes how to blast the roadblocks to distributed renewable energy generation, and how such small-scale renewable energy projects are the key to the biggest strides in renewable energy development.   Farrell also authored the landmark report Energy Self-Reliant States, which serves as the definitive energy atlas for the United States, detailing the state-by-state renewable electricity generation potential. Farrell regularly provides discussion and analysis of distributed renewable energy policy on his blog, Energy Self-Reliant States (energyselfreliantstates.org), and articles are regularly syndicated on Grist and Renewable Energy World.   John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at jfarrell@ilsr.org.

  • Ronald Brakels

    Building new natural gas plants in the US would probably be repeating a mistake made in Australia where new gas plants are now operating at well below their planned capacity. Grid electricity use is declining in Australia despite an expanding population and having the fastest growing economy in the developed world. Two large reasons why electricity use declined in Australia apply to the United States and they are improved efficiency and point of use solar. So I suspect that grid electricity use will also decline in the United States and its important that the US does not do what Australia did and overbuild its natural gas and transmission capacity. Both solar and wind are currently reducing the profitability of gas in the US and new gas plants are likely to face a significant carbon price for much of their operating lives.

    • Bob_Wallace

      We have a lot of NG capacity in the US. In 2011 the CF was only 24.24% which means it sits idle 75% of the time.

      More NG will probably get built in the US because we’re in the process of closing down a lot of coal capacity. One hundred and fifty coal plants are on the chopping block. Utilities are glad to use cheap wind and solar but they need to be sure that they have a source if the Sun isn’t shining and the wind not blowing.

      NG is (relatively) cheap to build. It’s a lot cheaper and faster to build NG capacity than any mass storage we have right now. It’s going to get built and used as needed.

      Utilities are going to do what is necessary to keep the lights on. Cost is going to come second. Climate third, and at times a distant third.

      If people get concerned enough about climate change we’ll implement a carbon price which will make it cheaper to use storage for short term fill-in but the gas plants are likely to be around for decades.

      Long term, hopefully we’ll be running the gas plants on biogas.

      • Ronald Brakels

        I forsee many more gas plants being built, and then much wailing in
        board rooms as they fail to make money thanks to either static or
        declining demand, followed by many attempts to make consumers pay for
        this mistake, although I understand that in general this is harder to do
        in the US than Australia.

        • Ronald Brakels

          I may have given the wrong impression. In Australia if a company builds a natural gas plant and it loses money they have to live with the results. It’s transmission infrastructure that consumes have to pay for whether it is needed or not. And in further news the 385 megawatt Swanbank E gas plant is being closed down in Australia as it is now more profitable to sell the gas overseas. The power company that owns it says they will burn more coal once the Coalition government gets rid of our carbon price. The good news is we’re still building a lot of solar capacity here.

  • Rick Kargaard

    If you can get the price of electricity low enough, it is viable to use it directly as a heat source in many areas. The delivery charges make up a fairly large proportion of your gas bill and this could be eliminated. Electric heat is actually 100% efficient
    ( all the electricity used is converted to heat.) Smaller, more energy efficient houses are necessary but I don’t think this is a bad thing.
    Natural gas has a fairly low energy content and sometimes actually contains CO2. To use it for transportation, it might make sense to convert it to hydrogen in refineries if carbon sequestration is possible.
    This is all dreams now, but future technology is not predictable and many developments will probably surprise us.
    Natural gas is another product that has many uses besides fuel and future generations may wonder why we burned it, along with oil, so carelessly. Even if a catastrophe does not result from GHGs.

  • debra haddix

    Obama’s agenda has nothing to do with global warming… the truth is coming out,killing off a competitor’s competition

  • Gwennedd

    Several things all of you seem to have failed to see is the cost ,in terms of producing natural gas, on the environment. First, it contaminates huge amounts of water, both at the well site and in the local water wells and groundwater. Fracking, the main way used lately to recover natural gas, is extremely water intensive. Once the chemically laden water is injected into the well site, it can never be used again. Fracking also tends to pollute local water supplies..people are able to set their tap water on fire, fer God’s sake! Cattle and other farm animals are dying from the poisons in their usual drinking water. Many homes have to rely on shipped water just to continue living in their homes and run their farms if fracking wells are nearby. The other point missed is the matter of earthquake swarms from injecting water into wells and removing the gas. BTW..isn’t natural gas methane? A greenhouse gas 40 something times worse than CO2!

    • Bob_Wallace

      Coal is not exactly that kind to the environment.

      If one replaces 100% coal with 40% wind, 40% solar and 20% NG are we, overall, better or worse off?

      • Rick Kargaard

        Most of the problems associated with NG outside of the CO2 has been caused by irresponsible development and insufficient regulation. That is not true in all jurisdictions. Also not all Ng is really “wet”. Many sources are very “dry”. Shallow well fracking is problematical in some formations.

      • A Real Libertarian

        But it isn’t 100% coal Bob.

        Still, it’s a lot easier to shut down gas then coal.

        • Bob_Wallace

          “If one replaces 100% coal ”

          If an utility shuts down a coal plant that’s 100% coal. The 150 coal plants we’re closing are being replaced largely with NG. That’s simply what utilities are going to do.

          There will be no overnight reduction in GHG but over the next years more rooftop solar will cause the gas plants to curtail. And wind, having no fuel cost, will cause the gas plants to curtail.

          It’s not the ideal route off fossil fuels, but it’s a realistic route off fossil fuels.

          • A Real Libertarian

            “There will be no overnight reduction in GHG but over the next years more rooftop solar will cause the gas plants to curtail. And wind, having no fuel cost, will cause the gas plants to curtail.”

            And since something like 85% of costs are operating expenses it’s easy to justify walking away when they’re no longer profitable.

          • Bob_Wallace

            That’s about it. NG plants are relatively cheap. The ones being installed now will get recoup their capex fairly quickly.

            Since there won’t be a lot of capital tied up in them they can sit idle for months. And when they are really needed they will be able to sell product for a very good return.

            That’s what happens with gas peakers now. They may run only a few hours per year, but they make money for the owners.

    • Steven Jestes

      Gwen, there you go again making comments I shake my head at, I think you truly care for the environment and want to do everything you can to save it but you don’t exactly understand a few things. For example, do you even realize studies show that globally, volcanoes on land and under the sea release a total of about 200 million tonnes of CO2 annually? Why don’t we just take all the volcanoes away while we are fulfilling all of your other hopes for change.

      • Bob_Wallace

        That’s a post devoid of intelligence.

        The issue is human activity that is changing the planet’s climate.

  • Zeeger D.

    Well explained.

    Tip: always include external costs when discussing financial aspects. A cost price is merely what we perceive now. Fossil fuels bear huge, more invisible costs, making them even more expensive than they look.

    On the input side, they receive many more subsidies than green energy. You probably have enough sources for this, one example: http://www.imf.org/external/np/sec/pr/2013/pr1393.htm

    On the output side, they cause a lot of more damage, depletion, destruction, health problems than green energy, that somehow needs to be compensated, probably with taxes and premiums.

    All costs borne by all people instead of the polluters. Citizens, by means of taxes, pay to create an incentive to pollute and make corporate fossil gentlemen rich. Now that is pretty sick, if you ask me.

    Note also that using massive subsidies and taxes (regarding externalities), the presence of mono- or oligopolists (instead of multiple ‘small’ suppliers) and intransparency regarding information on the subject (funds for spreading climate change disinformation, anyone?) points to a situation of an inefficient or failing market, ….or, in a binary world, a successful communist economy, if you like. 😉

  • Tom S

    Nat gas as a replacement to diesel for the long haul trucking industry makes 100% sense. We are never going to have electric or solar heavy trucks. This will create a choice for the trucking industry and create tons of new jobs while we are at it.

    • Bob_Wallace

      We could move a lot of our current truck shipping to rail. Electrified rail. Russia moves massive amounts of stuff thousands of miles with electric rail.

      Then use battery powered trucks for “the last mile”. 100 mile range trucks have already been built. And with battery swapping they could run 24 hours a day if needed, just swap out the battery pack at the rail siding when they come back for their next load.

  • Bob_Wallace

    I think what John is missing here is that NG is dispatchable.

    What makes NG a bridge is not that it is a replacement for coal, but that it can affordably fill in between the times when wind and solar are not producing. If we got only 50% of our electricity from wind/solar and the other 50% from NG we would be putting far less CO2 into the atmosphere. And we should be able to get more than 50% from wind/solar as we produce “baseload”.

    Without some way to fill in the wind/solar gaps we simply will not install as much and use more coal.

    We’ve got affordable wind and solar but utilities have to fill in the gaps. We don’t yet have cheap enough storage. I think we’ll get the storage we need. In the meantime we have NG and it can be the bridge that gets us from coal to a 100% renewable grid.

    In my book natural gas is evil. But 100% coal is more evil.

  • Omega Centauri

    We should be cutting back on the use of natural gas for space and water heating too. The have air source heat pump solutions available for these applications, that are efficient enough, they would reduce nat gas usage if powered by electricty generated by gas. And the heating infrastructure will then be ready for the replacement of nat gas fired electricity by renewables. Note if we free up nat gas usage for this applications, we can use it for electricity, rather than needing to frack new wells. Also we might want to consider replacing gas stove burners, with induction cooking.

    Nat gas powered electricity in the medium term (say next 25years) is a bit more nuanced. Nat gas peakers are fairly cheap, and play well with variable sources like wind/solar. Untill we get good storage technology, nat gas as the swing producer will be important as the push of renewables penetration. Not a longterm solution, but done right a bit of a bridge. Long term we would still have some methane available in a zero-carbon economy (biogas), so we could still use some amount of nat gas for swing production.

  • Steeple

    Articles like this set the Green Movement back in my opinion. Particularly the inflammatory headline.

    What is the point of this article? That the author doesn’t like natural gas because it doesn’t get a perfect score on Greenhouse gas emissions?

    Natural gas power plants are hardly being expanded because electricity demand doesnt require it.

    Natural gas fired power coexists well with Renewables, and will need to do so for some time until Renewables become a greater part of the fleet and/or battery storage becomes more economical.

    It’s because of natural gas that the US is leading the world in reducing GHG emissions. We have some of the cheapest and cleanest power of the developed countries. How about being a little thankful for the role that natural gas has played?

  • Hi John,

    The difference between natural gas emissions and coal emissions, is not just the CO2 difference.

    Burning natural gas will release X amount of CO2 as you rightly point out, and some water vapour.

    Burning coal on the other hand, will certainly release CO2 — but included in the coal emissions are mercury, sulfur, nitrous oxide, traces of heavy metals and other toxic pollutants.

    Not only that, the daily water consumption of coal plants is obscene.

    It’s not just the CO2.

    I agree with you 100% that renewables are the answer, it’s just that it is going to take some time to ramp up to meet demand.

    A (national) level playing field with regards to regulations for renewable energy generally, and for distributed energy specifically, would do more than anything at this point, to speed up renewable energy adoption. I feel that publicizing this point should be Job #1 for every proponent of renewable energy.

    But for the next, say, 20 years, we need fossil energy. Do we want coal or natural gas? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.

    Best regards, John Brian Shannon

    • Michael Berndtson

      I’m not disagreeing with anything you said. Just would like to point out that natural gas production, transmission and end use (let’s assume) combustion for electricity has its by by products as well. Especially shale gas. Natural gas has to be processed to separate out entrained liquids. Some formation are wetter than other. Meaning there’s ethane through pentanes that may get processed for plastics or fertilizer – or burned upon blending and reforming at the refinery. Gas wells produce water that can be nasty with heavy metals. Water gets separated at the wellhead or along transmission and needs to be managed as a waste. Gas also contains sulfur, since sulfur bacteria is the little manufacturer of our fossil fuels. Sulfur usually gets reduced in concentration by sweetening. Not so much for emissions concerns with gas turbines, but for material incompatibility. Then there’s mercury. Mercury being volatile will go with the gas. It gets separated out somewhere between the wellhead and city gate. Mercury causes problems with processing equipment, fan blades and catalysts. I have no idea how mercury is managed at shale oil formation like the Bakken in ND. About 1/3 of the gas extracted is flared, since its considered a waste product compared to oil. Mercury will go right through a flare and up into the atmosphere.

      • John Brian Shannon

        Hi Michael,

        I appreciate your thoughtful comment.

        And I certainly agree that natural gas obtained from fracking is not environmentally friendly, by the way.

        in British Columbia, and many other places where the concentration of
        sulfur in natural gas is high, sulfur is easily and economically
        extracted in a a very pure form as a by-product of conventional natural
        gas extraction and processing and is sold to industry at a profit.

        mercury, heavy metals and other toxic pollutants, I believe the
        concentrations are orders of magnitude higher in coal, as compared to
        natural gas.

        The most effective (and expensive) emission controls
        in modern coal plants don’t purify stack emissions down to anywhere
        near processed natural gas stack emission levels.

        Oil and gas
        flaring is a horribly inefficient and toxic practice, one that has
        (irrationally and inexplicably) been carried over from a previous
        century. It is possible to negate the need for flaring with modern
        technology, the problem is making the economics work.

        One large
        (oil) flare can produce more emissions than 1000 modern cars, over the
        course of 1 year. Some very large (oil) flares in the Middle East, (and
        happen to be particularly ‘dirty’ in certain locations) produce more
        emissions and more toxic emissions, than 10,000 modern cars.

        should have banned oil and gas flaring decades ago — especially as
        flaring often produces a very incomplete ‘burn’ — leaving very toxic
        gases to escape into the region.

        Best regards, JBS

        • John Brian Shannon

          Weird formatting! Discus, what did you do to my above comment???


        • Michael Berndtson

          Wellhead data made public on mercury in natural gas is very difficult to find. Many of the reports I’ve read seem to cite the same sources, which in turn cite each other. In other words, a circle citation event. Throughout the world mercury in natural gas concentration ranges a lot: from negligible (non detect) to seemingly a fairly high amount. If all the gas gets collected, mercury is removed from the stream and the combustion feed is relatively mercury free, then maybe there isn’t a concern.

          Given the natural gas production boom over the past 10 years, it may be beneficial to monitor more closely around population centers.

Back to Top ↑