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People Are Calling Natural Gas a ‘Bridge’ to a Sustainable Future—They’re Wrong

People Are Calling Natural Gas a ‘Bridge’ to a Sustainable Future—They’re Wrong thumbnail

For America to reach full renewable energy, we need to re-focus our investments — and divest ourselves of some dangerous ideas about natural gas.

By Nancy C. Loeb

Natural gas coming out of the ground in Taiwan. (Photo: Naplee12/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been a hot summer, with record-breaking heat in the United States and around the world, and the same can be said for all of 2016 so far.

According to new reports from National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Goddard Space Institute, 2016 is on course to be the hottest year on record around the globe. That makes 2016 the third year in a row to set a warming record — which should cause us grave concern. Indeed, the severe effects of climate change, including both drought and flooding in some of the poorest countries in the world, will lead to population dislocations that will likely exacerbate many of the dangerous political and social upheavals that we’re already facing.

In the face of these strong indicators of advancing climate change, the Democratic Party platform calls for a transition away from the fossil fuels and greater investment in renewable energy. The GOP platform, on the other hand, calls for new investments in fossil fuels. The Green Party promises an immediate drawdown of non-renewables.

Getting to a sustainable energy future will not be easy; the unfortunate reality is that we can’t make an overnight switch to renewables. The U.S. electricity grid is not equipped for such an immediate switch, and, while renewable technologies have advanced significantly, critical technologies, including large-scale battery storage, are not yet sufficiently advanced to replace fossil fuels completely.

Supposed “short-term” or “transitional” reliance on natural gas is a seemingly attractive option. For one thing, the U. S. has a lot of natural gas, and fracking has made it fairly easily recoverable, plentiful, and cheap. But it’s a dangerous mistake to tout natural gas as a cleaner energy source than other fossil fuels. It’s this same mistaken thinking that has people touting natural gas as a so-called “bridge” fuel, until a full transition to renewable energy sources becomes feasible.

Methane is a far more intense warming-inducing gas than the carbon emitted by coal and oil, so small releases of methane can have a disproportionately harmful effect.

Proponents argue that natural gas emits only about one-half the greenhouse emissions of coal-fired power plants. (Hillary Clinton has called natural gas “a bridge … we want to cross as quickly as possible.”) But the pro-fracking “bridge” argument doesn’t fully hold up under close scrutiny.

Natural gas is itself a fossil fuel that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), the principal driver of man-made climate change. While burning natural gas emits fewer GHGs than burning other fossil fuels like coal, we don’t know the actual extent of any advantage for natural gas from a climate perspective — and that’s because of significant but largely unmeasured releases of methane in the fracking process.

Estimates of methane leaks in the extraction and production of natural gas vary; an average estimate is that about 5 percent of methane will leak during the extraction and transportation of natural gas, although the actual amounts are likely highly dependent on the specifics of each mine and production process.

More important, methane is a far more intense warming-inducing gas than the carbon emitted by coal and oil, so relatively small releases of methane can have a disproportionately harmful effect.

Recognizing these facts, the Obama administration has proposed new regulations to limit methane gas emissions. Those regulations are under attack by the oil and gas industry, and by Republicans in Congress. In any event, we need research on actual methane emissions, as well as on ways to limit release of this methane — and to capture it.

There most likely is a near-term benefit in replacing older, inefficient coal-fired electricity plants with newer, more efficient natural gas plants. But the economic realities attached to investments in new-gas infrastructure, including wells, pipelines, and gas-fired power plants, threatens to squeeze out renewable energy sources over a prolonged period and may even raise GHG emissions over the longer term.

The history of coal is instructive if we want to understand why using natural gas as a “bridge” will set the private sector on a dangerous course.

Coal, especially in the years following the OPEC embargoes of the 1970s, became the fuel of choice to replace oil in U.S. power plants. The U.S. had a vast supply of coal and the cost was low, particularly in comparison with oil. The consequences today of replacing coal with low-priced natural gas demonstrate how hard a transition to a new fuel source can be. There are enormous costs, coal companies are going bankrupt, and jobs are being lost.

Companies are not going to make billions of dollars of investment in the infrastructure for natural gas that is expected to last about 40 years and simply walk away in five to 10 years — a five-year period is far too short for investment payback for these enormous sunk costs. To a large extent coal is being replaced by natural gas for electricity generation. But new investment in fossil fuels of any type — including natural gas — is a step in the wrong direction.

Research shows that, if we wait another 40 years for a more sizable switch to renewables, all of the GHG reduction benefits of natural gas will be lost. Indeed, even 20 years may be too long.

There is still more to do — especially in the areas of energy storage technologies and transmission infrastructure — that requires large investments, and this is where energy investment dollars should be going. For renewable energy sources like wind and solar to become the backbone of our electricity generation system, we need to be able to store the energy they generate for use when we need it. While there have been advances in storage technologies, this is a critical technology revolution we haven’t fully achieved. It’s where our investment dollars should be going.

Yes, we are reaping economic benefits from the abundant and inexpensive oil and gas we have enjoyed over the past few years. But if that’s all we do — or if we continue to invest primarily in continued fossil fuel dependence — we are only hoping for a sustainable energy future. We are not making the advances needed to assure it.

PS Mag

75 Comments on "People Are Calling Natural Gas a ‘Bridge’ to a Sustainable Future—They’re Wrong"

  1. ellsworth on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 12:25 pm 

    You can read the out of screen comments by highlighting the text (click and drag the cursor down DIAGONALLY from top left of text), copy and paste it into the box you write comments in.

  2. Outcast_Searcher on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 12:35 pm 

    shortonoil said:

    The companies that have adopted, and continued to advance this basic technology are now light years ahead of what is being publicized.

    Well, thanks for the link. I went and perused it.

    As with all the former rumors and conspiracy theories about 100 mpg carbs that were suppressed by big oil, etc. — I’ll believe this when I can actually see it at my local car dealer.

    I might actually buy it when outfits like Consumer Reports tell me the reliability surveys and surveys about the customer service, repair shops, etc. make it look like a truly energy efficient alternative to regular cars.

    Until then, history is littered with such claims, where virtually nothing happened.

    Until then, color me skeptical, just like for the ECAT, etc.

  3. Rick Bronson on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 12:36 pm 

    Solar / Natgas competition heating up in California.

    Solar PV is increasing so fast that it prevents Natgas prices from increasing.

  4. Outcast_Searcher on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 12:37 pm 

    You can also read the comments by diminishing the browser oom level to the point the text is too tiny to read without eyestrain.

    Why can’t the website have some sort of automated tool that fixes this?

  5. yoshua on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 12:58 pm 

    Thanks rockman – 1.7 wells in the service of the oil and gas industry sounds a lot.

    The only info I could find from Saudi Arabia was from 1980 a Exxon report of 1000 wells each producing on average 10.000 barrels per day.

  6. Apneaman on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 2:06 pm 

    Short, your just digging yourself deeper.

    Do you realize that this latest attemp of yours to deny AGW contridicts other attempts? You have used one of the denial industry’s favorite arguments that “it’s the sun” on a number of occasions. A solar maximum is causing the warming – not CO2. Ok now you are putting up a link saying there might be an “mini iceage” (not a scentific term btw) because of decreased activity from the sun – solar minium. So, one week it’s – Too much Sun and the next it’s Too little Sun. It can’t be both short. I see this all the time. Contridictory arguments from deniers and the denial industry. Same thing with other hard core conspiracy theriosts. This is the tell that it’s a highly emotional issue (worldview) for someone . They cannot spot their very obvious logical flaws in their arguments. Hey I know short, let’s blame Mars next week eh? Hell we could go through the entire solar system.

    Sun & climate: moving in opposite directions

    “Over the last 35 years the sun has shown a slight cooling trend. However global temperatures have been increasing. Since the sun and climate are going in opposite directions scientists conclude the sun cannot be the cause of recent global warming.

    The only way to blame the sun for the current rise in temperatures is by cherry picking the data. This is done by showing only past periods when sun and climate move together and ignoring the last few decades when the two are moving in opposite directions.”

    Any talk of a calling the Maunder Minimum a “little ice age” or “mini ice age” is convoluting terminology and a oxymoron. The last time there was a real ice age the Thames did not just freeze, but was under a mile of ice. Ice ages affect the entire planet, not just cause some regional cooling.

    “Ice age, also called glacial age, any geologic period during which thick ice sheets cover vast areas of land. Such periods of large-scale glaciation may last several million years and drastically reshape surface features of entire continents. A number of major ice ages have occurred throughout Earth history.”

    Solar Activity and the so-called “Little Ice Age

    “’m a professor of space environment physics and a director of research at the University of Reading in the UK. My particular topic of research is the sun, how it changes over time and how those changes affect the space environment, the weather and the climate on Earth.

    In the last few years, my work has focused on how temperatures in the northern hemisphere have responded to periods in history when the sun has been very quiet. The “activity” of the sun’s magnetic field is related to the number of sunspots that appear on its surface.

    The sun’s activity rises and falls on an approximately 11-year cycle, but also varies on century-long timescales. It’s this research I talked to BBC weatherman Paul Hudson about in an interview for the BBC’s Inside Out programme.

    Unfortunately, I now find myself in the position of being cited as predicting that the current rapid decline in solar activity will plunge the world into a “Little Ice Age”.

    This is very disappointing as it is not at all supported by the science. ”

    Tell yourself whatever you need to to get through one more day. Peak oil deniers do it all the time too. Just one more happy human story.

  7. Apneaman on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 2:32 pm 

    Freak Storm Kills 20 in Macedonian Capital Torrential rain and heavy winds that hit the Macedonian capital Skopje on Saturday night left at least 20 dead, six missing and 22 people hospitalized, police confirmed.

    Not a “Freak” or unusual at all, but rather what one should expect in a world that the humans have increased the warming by 1C (since 1880) thus adding 7% more moisture to the atmosphere. This is completely normal given the new conditions and was exactly what was predicted would happen. The new abnormal. Another 1C increase is locked and that does not take into account most feedbacks. These new deluges are going to seem like a trip to the water park with the kids compared to what’s coming.

  8. peakyeast on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 2:40 pm 

    About iceages:

    “Earth is tilted on its axis, but it’s not always the exact same tilt,” explains Huybers. The axis goes up and down a few degrees in 40,000-year cycles. “When the tilt is at its highest, more sunlight hits the higher latitudes, melting the ice.”

    How does that account for ice ages every 100,000 years? “What we think is happening is that the glaciers have to get large enough for the increased sunlight to have an effect, so the thaws happen every second or third cycle, which would average out to 100,000 years,” Huybers says. “This makes sense because if you go back another million years, ice ages were occurring every 40,000 years.” Earth has cooled since then, allowing the cycle to skip a beat.

  9. peakyeast on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 2:42 pm 


  10. peakyeast on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 2:51 pm 

    It is fairly obvious that fossil fuels didnt start this or any previous warming period, period. Nor did they end any so far.

    Our current impact on earth – which amounts to – if I remember correctly about / under 1% change – might slightly postpone (in geological time) the next iceage.

    The – as measured – has been on a cooling trend for a “billion” years – humans are not going to upset that significantly before they are gone again. I will bet that in just a few 100.000 years there will be no discernible variations on the climate anymore.

    But a lot of species will be gone, of course.

    Wether its us changing the climate or nature is absolutely besides the real point: That one should not make a civilisation so fragile that it cannot take the naturally occuring oscillations in climate…

    So lousy planning caused by sheer greed and stupidity is all it comes down to and nothing will change our predicament since we are waaay overstretched and havent even seen ANY real trouble – from ourselves nor nature.

  11. yoshua on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 3:20 pm 

    The Ghawar Field is located in the eastern portion of the Empty Quarter of the Arabian peninsula about 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Dhahran in the Al Hasa province in Saudi Arabia. It is operated by Saudi Aramco.

    The field has long undergone secondary recovery methods. Gas injection was introduced in 1958, according to “Hydrocarbons Technology,” and water injection began in 1964 to provide pressure support. Today water is pumped by pipeline from the Qurayyah Seawater Treatment Plant.

    In 1995 Aramco conducted a 3-D seismic survey to examine the reservoir structure and fracture distribution to guide future development of the field. More recently the company began the Haradh III project, which relies on maximum-reservoir-contact wells and downhole interval control valves for flow control. Geosteering also has been used, and wells have been equipped with intelligent sensors for continuous monitoring.

    The site noted that Ghawar had more than 3,000 injector and oil producer wells by the end of 2012. Halliburton is the prime contractor and was awarded a five-year contract in 2009 to develop as many as 185 oil production, water injection and evaluation wells. Aramco also is working on a carbon capture and storage (CCS) strategy at Ghawar to combine CCS with EOR. The project, expected to be completed at the end of 2014, would require 1.1 MMcm/d (40 MMcf/d) to be pumped from the Hawiyah and Uthmaniyah gas processing plants. It also would require an 800,000 ton/year CCS facility and a 70-km (43-mile) pipeline to transport CO2 to the site.

    Finally, the company is planning to award FEED contracts to develop three shale gas fields, one of which resides in the southern part of the Ghawar Field.

  12. GregT on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 4:25 pm 

    “The bumpy ride of US oil has more to do with the geopolitics of lower cost producers getting their oil to market than the idea of depletion.”

    Those lower cost producers are also facing serious economic troubles Boat. Infinite exponential growth, in a finite environment, is a mathematical and physical impossibility. The limits to growth have been met. Without growth the entire system collapses in on itself. Exactly what it is already in the process of doing.

  13. shortonoil on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 5:53 pm 

    “You can also read the comments by diminishing the browser oom level to the point the text is too tiny to read without eyestrain. “

    The easiest way to get around the spreading out problem is to change browsers. This site spreads out in Explorer, and Chrome but not FireFox. Different site work best on different browsers.

  14. Boat on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 6:18 pm 

    When a country allows a population to exceed its ability take care of it, of course there will be problems. That doesn’t mean collapse of the world is inevitable. Why are you convinced growth is necessary. I would argue the opposite. Products are getting cheaper and use less energy. If the population were stable the net effect would be a smaller more efficient economy.
    Part of energy demand is slowing because of these efficiencies. All products have a life cycle but as they
    are replaced the house uses less energy.

  15. Apneaman on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 6:34 pm 

    peaky, it’s not obvious at all. You just made shit up. Pulled it straight from your ass. that Cherry pick and come to the conclusion you started with – the one that makes you feel “OK”. Another white boy playing mental Twister to avoid the slightest feeling of guilt. Funny, you been hiding in the closet all this time. Maybe, if you feel up to it, you can find an alternative explanation for ocean acidification other than burning all those fossil fuels. Blame the moon or something. Same with strip mining most of the planet and triggering the 6th mass extinction so a couple generations could live like kings. That’s right, AGW is but one driver of the well underway 6th mass. Yeah, It’s really hard to admit that you are part of a plague species – one of the better fed ones.

    Earth’s worst extinction “inescapably” tied to Siberian Traps, CO2, and climate change

    Too Much Carbon Dioxide May Have Caused Earth’s Worst Mass Extinction

    ” in fact, carbon dioxide emitted from power plants, deforestation, manufacturing, and driving, have increased the ocean’s acid levels by a staggering 26 percent over the last 200 years.
    “Because of CO2 released by burning fossil fuels,” Hand wrote, “oceans could now be acidifying even faster than they did 250 million years ago, although the process hasn’t yet persisted nearly as long.””

  16. Apneaman on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 7:41 pm 

    Oh my, the various solar deities the humans have invented are acting mighty pissed lately. Best to sacrifice a goat and spare your town.

    Four deadly floods taking place right this second

  17. Boat on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 8:27 pm 

    If you want please a god think a 3,000 lb grain fed cow. A goat? No wonder their mad.

  18. GregT on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 8:40 pm 

    “When a country allows a population to exceed its ability take care of it, of course there will be problems. That doesn’t mean collapse of the world is inevitable.”

    Population overshoot is not a national problem Kevin. It is a planetary problem.

    “Why are you convinced growth is necessary.”

    I’m not. I believe that a steady state economy is possible, but not with 7.4 billion people. More like somewhere between 500 million, and 1 billion. We will get there soon enough, unfortunately the
    longer we continue to burn fossil fuels, the lower the number of humans that the biosphere will be able to support. Up to and including, the extinction of our species.

    “Products are getting cheaper and use less energy.”

    A complete and utter load of nonsense. Products are becoming cheaper mainly due to the exploitation of other people’s labor in developing countries. Jevon’s paradox blows your efficiency fantasy to smithereens. We are not using less energy, we continue to use more.

    “Part of energy demand is slowing because of these efficiencies.”

    Energy demand is slowing due to affordability. The world’s economies continue to stagnate, and debt continues to grow exponentially. Fiat currencies, and our current economic systems, cease to function without exponential growth. You have repeatedly exposed your complete lack of understanding of both. This isn’t exactly rocket science Kevin, and can easily be understood by most 8 year olds.

    “All products have a life cycle but as they are replaced the house uses less energy.”

    Houses used far less energy for hundreds of thousand of years prior to today. We are going back to the past Boat. All of the stuff that we currently use all of that energy for, is not necessary for human survival, and is causing irreversible damage to the one and only thing that is, the natural biosphere.

  19. Apneaman on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 8:49 pm 

    Boat, I’m so confused. I don’t know which god to worship. Sun gods make sense though don’t they? No sun means no plants which means no cows which means no hamburgers tonight (with Havarti cheese).

  20. GregT on Sun, 7th Aug 2016 8:51 pm 

    “No wonder their mad.”

    You’re exposing your level of stupidity again Kevin.

    It would be ‘they’re’, not ‘their’.

  21. JuanP on Mon, 8th Aug 2016 6:36 am 

    Boat, I have reached the conclusion that Boat is dyslexic, or something like that, and have decided to give him a pass where his writing skills are concerned. I never said anything about his writing deficiencies before he called me an innumerate and illiterate to begin with. I have also decided to be more patient with his stupidity since I found out he is a preacher’s son, since I find that very sad. What could be worse than to be born in the USA and be raised as a preacher’s son? I mostly pity the guy now. Americans are the most thoroughly conditioned and brainwashed people on this planet, so te be an American and a preacher’s son is a terribly unfortunate combination of circumstances, IMO.

  22. Boat on Mon, 8th Aug 2016 8:51 am 


    “Those lower cost producers are also facing serious economic troubles Boat. Infinite exponential growth, in a finite environment, is a mathematical and physical impossibility.”

    For example no one forced the Saudi to dramatically grow their population. No one forced their government to give out such huge energy subsidies. No one forced them to increase military spending to #3 in the world even surpassing the Russians.
    So now oil producers only make a few 100’s of billions. Cry me a river.

  23. peakyeast on Mon, 8th Aug 2016 9:25 am 

    @Ape: Dear apeman. I have never hid i the closet concerning anything. I wonder where you get that idea from?

    I am not saying that humans are not destroying our ecosystems. I am not saying that we are not causing enviromental change. What I am saying is that it really doesnt matter if it is us or naturally occuring.

    We should, when our scientists discovered the iceages between the warming periods, started planning to make a resilient civilisation that could withstand the naturally occuring oscillations.

    If we had done that – we would also have solved the problems we ourselves are making. These problems are not solved by mindlessly breeding or consuming as much as possible, nor polluting everything including our own food.

    I think you are fantasizing a little too much about what opinions I could have.

    If you deny the fact that we are in a brief naturally occuring warming period between long naturally occuring iceages and that the earth has been cooling for billions of years. – Then you have an opinion based faulty world-view – which I think you could improve on.

  24. Apneaman on Mon, 8th Aug 2016 12:30 pm 

    peaky thats lovely, except you have NO evidence that this warming is the result of solar. Did you not read shorts link where it clearly states that we are in a period of low solar activity? Yet the warming continues-go figure? I thought you euro tards were supposed to be better educated than Americans? No matter, ideology trumps education every time. Actually, the extra warming IS from the sun in the form of radiation that is being trapped in the humans greenhouse gases (8th grade science experiment) instead of going into space. I’m sorry, but you have left me no choice. You are now officially on the retard list.

  25. Kenz300 on Thu, 11th Aug 2016 7:38 am 

    Clean energy production with wind and solar…………..

    Clean energy consumption with electric vehicles………

    Climate Change is real and it will impact all of us………..

    The Effects Of Growth: Sprawl & Development – YouTube

    Koch Brothers Continue to Fund Climate Change Denial Machine, Spend $21M to Defend Exxon

    Big Coal Funded This Prominent Climate Change Denier, Docs Reveal

    Pope Francis’s edict on climate change will anger deniers and US churches | World news | The Guardian

    Head Of The Episcopal Church Says It’s ‘Sinful’ To Ignore Climate Change

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