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Natural Gas isn’t a Bridge Fuel, it’s a Gateway Drug

Natural Gas isn’t a Bridge Fuel, it’s a Gateway Drug thumbnail

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.


9 Comments on "Natural Gas isn’t a Bridge Fuel, it’s a Gateway Drug"

  1. Northwest Resident on Mon, 3rd Feb 2014 10:50 pm 

    I hate to see Obama up there on the national stage, pretending like everything is just fine, that all we need to do is convert to natural gas and that will solve a big part of energy dilemma. I guess he’s just doing what he has to do. It isn’t like he’s the one running the show.

    Everything I read and learn about natural gas leads me to believe that it will never solve our energy problems — can’t fuel transportation — can be used in industry and home heating but converting to NG infrastructure where none currently exists is a major investment, one that might never pay off — problems with even getting it out of the ground due to price uncertainties and resulting lack of profit motive for oil companies as rockman has repeatedly pointed out.

    Not that renewables stand a chance in hell of saving us either, as claimed by this article.

    I guess we can just sum it by saying, there are no viable options at this point, we are screwed and the only possible “solution” is collapse and total reset. Sad, but true, IMO.

  2. DC on Mon, 3rd Feb 2014 11:32 pm 

    As usual, we see low-tech, simple alternatives are often priced out of the market as ‘uncompetitive’, whilst heavily subsidized fossil-fueled ‘solutions’ dominate the discourse are promoted as the ‘only solution’.

    Like the picture illustrates. Ng is a bridge to nowhere. Or if you like, a bridge to with more fossil-fuel consumption on the other side. Bridge to a ‘green energy economy’ has never been anything more than a uS oil corporation talking point. Empty, feel-good rhetoric. If anything, all the frantic fraking in the North America has had the exact opposite effect. Public subsidies have flown to frakers, while even the modest incentives for wind, solar and conservation efforts are under constant threat of cutback or elimination. Driven in no small part, by the ‘glut’ of frak-gas.

  3. Stilgar Wilcox on Mon, 3rd Feb 2014 11:33 pm 

    It’s fascinating how certain meme’s become accepted via MSM.

    – Iraq will produce 12 mbd
    – NG is a clean fuel
    – peak oil is dead due to fracking
    – Saudi’s have 2.5 mbd spare capacity
    – Renewables will replace FF
    – It’s not peak oil, it’s peak demand
    – ERR is what’s important, not EROEI
    – A trillion barrels of oil in shale under mid-west, and the only thing stopping us from using it are environmentalists (not EROEI).
    – peak oil will not occur for many decades to come, if ever

    I’m sure there are more but I’m exhausted from seeing the same things written over and over again. And when they are proven wrong, like the one about 12mbd from Iraq, there is no article saying they got it wrong.

  4. rollin on Mon, 3rd Feb 2014 11:36 pm 

    Roof mounted PV in West Australia is having a major effect on the way the grid operates and that is at about only 10 to 15% penetration.

  5. Makati1 on Tue, 4th Feb 2014 3:34 am 

    rollin, PV will only work as ‘stand alone’ systems on your house or mine. NOT as part of a commercial system. If you cannot afford to do it that way, you are screwed, like most people. But, you can probably cut your electric usage to a level you can afford to solar power, if you really want to.

    Of course that limits you to minimal lighting, a well pump, fans, small, very efficient refrigerator (w/o auto defrost), and maybe a computer/TV set up that uses minimal electric. You should be able to get along with 150 KWh or less per month. That is about a 1,000 watt system for most areas.

  6. antaris on Tue, 4th Feb 2014 5:52 am 

    1000 watt system = $ 6000.00 cdn

  7. Davy, Hermann, MO on Tue, 4th Feb 2014 1:15 pm 

    OK, broken record Davy again saying we need all options now. Yet, we don’t need market misallocation like is occurring now with gas because of the “plenty propaganda” Renewables will rely on gas as the backup generation until decent storage is developed which I think will be never. I agree we should put renewables in all the available sweet spots. If it is not a sweet spot like sunny Arizona for solar, windy great plains for wind, bio fuels in Iowa, or Iceland for geothermal we are again misallocating resources. The substitution of gas for coal and nuke generation is dangerous. I want to again mention if the truth comes out we may have a complete loss of confidence then liquidity in our economy. That leads to breakdown in social fabric when people can’t get food. I know some of you for reason of carbon reduction or forcing renewable usage may find this appealing. Yet, a collapse will be ugly and painful for all of us. We will all experience pain except for a few who always profit in crisis. So if you are prepared then I understand why you would advocate dumping fossil fuels near term. I am all for a collapse to a lower standard of living in a few years if we don’t have a hard landing. The degree and duration of collapse is critical for survival. Carrying capacity of our complex society is 10 times carrying capacity in a 19 century system. The getting from here to there is the scary part. When people become stressed all the horsemen show up with the grim reaper. We are talking about mass starvation to occur quickly in regions already under stress soon to spread to relatively stable locations if the reboot takes more than a few weeks!

  8. GregT on Wed, 5th Feb 2014 12:18 am 


    Solar in Canada,

    “A Surrey resident has drastically cut his electricity bill by installing solar panels on his home.

    Last week, electrician Hans Wekking’s energy bill was $3, which includes the cost of charging his electric car.

    Two weeks ago, Wekking installed eight solar panels on his house at a cost of $10,000.

    “This shields you from any rate hikes. Once you’ve paid for the system, the electricity is free,” he said.

    “So if there’s any future rate increases — like gasoline keeps going up, so is electricity — so for 25 years you are producing electricity,” he added.

    Wekking says the solar panels are not as effective in the darker months, but can still run a TV or laptop.

    Unfortunately for us in Canada, the darker months are from October to March. But for 10,000 dollars, you too can run a laptop for almost half of the year. For an extra $30,000 you can get off the grid, but still won’t be able to power much more than light bulbs a TV, a small 12 volt fridge, and maybe a laptop, when it rains for 5 months at a time. Most importantly, solar panels on your roof won’t feed you.

  9. GregT on Wed, 5th Feb 2014 1:17 am 


    A few years back in Vancouver BC, after a period of heavy rainfall, the tap water throughout the city became cloudy. One of the local radio stations made an announcement that there was a boil water advisory, but that the water was still safe to drink. Within 2 hours, every grocery store in the city was inundated with panicked people looking for bottled water. People got into fist fights, they climbed warehouse shelving 20 feet up, and they lined up with shopping carts full of bottled water, even though there was a one case per person limit. It was a complete shit show, to put it mildly. Two days later everything returned back to normal. Tap water was clear again.

    If there was a market collapse, or even the thought of a market collapse, I would imagine the situation would be somewhat more desperate. I am sure that there would be bank runs, cleaned out grocery store shelves, gas shortages, and general pandemonium all within a couple of hours of an announcement. If the collapse was long term, the implications obviously would be far worse. Those that have no food reserves would run out in a couple of days, and a couple of days after that, would be roaming the streets searching for something to eat.

    Our government has been trying to get people to prepare for natural disasters for many decades already. Every time we have a small earth tremor, people get all hyped up, the media runs stories on preparedness, businesses start making contingency plans etc.. Within a couple of weeks it is completely off of most people’s radar. I ask people all of the time, if they at least have some food and water tucked away. Most do not. Many laugh it off, and consider the thought as preposterous. Ring a bell?

    Sooner or later, the inevitable will occur, there will be a crisis of some form or another. If one is able to talk with their neighbours, and get people on board, then a crisis can be somewhat mitigated, at least locally. Unfortunately, most people are just not interested. I know, my wife and I have already been through this. Try to tell people that there is a chance of a financial collapse, and they will look at you like you are an idiot.

    The only thing that can be done, is to surround yourself with like minded people, discuss possibilities, and come up with a game plan. One household with a stock of food and water, surrounded by hundreds, or thousands of desperate people, will not do anyone any good. Unless of course, that household has enough for everyone, and even if that was the case, the word would get out very quickly.

    So I guess what I am trying to say here is, people need to prepare for themselves, no one else is going to do it for them. They need to assess where they are at, to determine if that is the best place for them to be. They should be involved with, and know their neighbours. They should definitely be getting out of populated areas, while the getting is still good. They should have a long term plan for sustainability, in case the crisis IS long term, and they should have the means to defend themselves against threats, and should be prepared to do whatever may be necessary.

    Those that are living in densely populated areas, are setting themselves up for extremely dire circumstances period. IMHO.

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