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Page added on September 25, 2014

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Natural Gas a Bridge to Nowhere


A study published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that switching from coal to natural gas would not significantly lower the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.

The natural gas processed at this plant isn’t the answer to reducing carbon emissions, a new study says. Photo credit: Shutterstock

“That’s chiefly because the shift would delay the deployment and cost-competitiveness of renewable electricity technologies for making electricity,” concluded the three researchers from the University of California Irvine, Stanford University and Seattle-based nonprofit Net Zero.

“Increased use of natural gas has been promoted as a means of decarbonizing the U.S. power sector, because of superior generator efficiency and lower CO2 emissions per unit of electricity than coal,” said the study. “We model the effect of different gas supplies on the U.S. power sector and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Across a range of climate policies, we find that abundant natural gas decreases use of both coal and renewable energy technologies in the future.”

The study found that, without a climate policy, electricity use would increase as the natural gas supply increased and cost dropped, canceling out the benefits of lower carbon emissions, even if methane leakage from natural gas exploration—itself a potent greenhouse gas—were near zero. It also found that the low cost of natural gas would discourage and delay development and deployment of clean energy technologies. The research team looked at outcomes with no climate policy, a moderate carbon tax of $25 per ton and a strict carbon cap that reduces carbon dioxide emissions 83 percent over 2005 levels by 2050, as well as with renewable energy standards.

“Our results suggest that without strong limits on GHG emissions or policies that explicitly encourage renewable electricity, abundant natural gas may actually slow the process of decarbonization, primarily by delaying deployment of renewable energy technologies,” the researchers said.

According to the study, coal provides 41 percent of power in the U.S. Natural gas-fired plants emit 57 percent less Co2 per kilowatt hour than coal-fired plants.

“The potential for natural gas to reduce U.S. emissions has become increasingly salient as innovations in hydraulic fracturing technology have dramatically increased domestic supplies of gas, and as proposed federal regulations on CO2 emissions from stationary sources are projected to increase the substitution of natural gas for coal,” said the study. “Although the finding that natural gas alone will not significantly reduce CO2 emissions is consistent with previous reports, we believe the important implications for climate-energy policy are nonetheless not widely appreciated.”

“Cutting greenhouse gas emissions by burning natural gas is like dieting by eating reduced-fat cookies,” said Steven Davis, one of the researchers.”It may be better than eating full-fat cookies, but if you really want to lose weight, you probably need to avoid cookies altogether.”

“Natural gas has been presented as a bridge to a low-carbon future, but what we see is that it’s actually a major detour,” said Christine Shearer, another member of the research team. “We find that the only effective paths to reducing greenhouse gases are a regulatory cap or a carbon tax.”


9 Comments on "Natural Gas a Bridge to Nowhere"

  1. rockman on Thu, 25th Sep 2014 3:10 pm 

    “Natural gas has been presented as a bridge to a low-carbon future”. As best as I can recall Mr. Shearer is the first person I’ve seen refer to NG as a “low carbon future”. His analogy also sucks IMHO. We aren’t “dieting” with NG…we’re consuming it to stay alive…economically. Now if he had a realistic/doable plan to eliminate all fossil fuel consumption in short order then he wouldn’t be wasting our time.

    So he doesn’t like burning NG, eh? He’s going to be really pissed down the road when coal starts gaining as NG prices inevitably rise IMHO.

  2. synapsid on Thu, 25th Sep 2014 5:03 pm 


    Christine Shearer.

  3. Plantagenet on Thu, 25th Sep 2014 5:36 pm 

    NG releases about half the CO2 as coal would for the same amount of energy. One of the biggest reasons that US CO2 emissions have been dropping is that coal-fired power plants have been shifting to cheaper NG. But lets ignore the real world, and pretend NG isn’t better than coal when it comes down to CO2 emissions.

  4. rockman on Fri, 26th Sep 2014 6:15 am 

    syn – Thanks. I often assume such foolishness is male dominated. LOL

  5. Beery on Fri, 26th Sep 2014 10:06 am 

    Everything in our world is male dominated (this site is just one example). But that doesn’t mean that women can’t be just as stupid as men.

  6. rockman on Fri, 26th Sep 2014 10:18 am 

    News flash: the body of an individual known by the alias “beery” has just been discovered stabbed to death in a downtown parking garage. The murder weapon appears to have been a stiletto heel.

  7. synapsid on Fri, 26th Sep 2014 1:49 pm 


    In 2013 the main fuel for US electricity production was coal (39%); NG was second at 27%. There was some switching in the Spring but it didn’t last.

    I don’t know about current fuel use but I suspect coal is still the main energy source.

  8. Steve Allen on Fri, 26th Sep 2014 8:11 pm 

    If anyone cares – the study title (never mentioned in the above piece) is “The effect of natural gas supply on US
    renewable energy and CO2 emissions.”

    Available online at

  9. Kenz300 on Sun, 28th Sep 2014 7:38 pm 

    Last one out please turn the lights off………

    Wind, solar, wave energy, geothermal and second generation biofuels made from algae, cellulose and waste are the future.


    Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement Continues To Grow


    Rockefellers, Heirs to an Oil Fortune, Will Divest Charity of Fossil Fuels

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