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Natural Gas Must Peak Between 2020 and 2030 To Meet Climate Goals

A new report finds natural gas must peak “sooner than many policymakers currently realize is necessary—if the United States is to meet its climate goals and avoid the worst impacts of global warming.”

The report, from the Center for American Progress (where I am a senior fellow), concludes:

There needs to be a swift transition from coal to a zero-carbon future by ensuring that the use of natural gas, particularly in the electric-power sector, peaks within the next 7 years to 17 years.

This is based on climate science, pure and simple:

… the crux of this report is that any long-term expansion and dependence on natural gas for electricity generation is incompatible with climate-stabilization targets because it also results in carbon pollution, although less than coal. The increase in global temperature must be kept within 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, which means that the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gas must be stabilized within 450 parts per million, or ppm, CO2 equivalent by 2050. This is the internationally recognized threshold, which was adopted in 2010 at the 16th session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Exceeding the 2 degree threshold would cause severe and frequent droughts, heat waves, floods, and storms, and lower-income households would be harmed the most, as they are less able to prepare for and recover from climate disasters.

To meet the 2C (3.6F) goal, the Obama administration set these emissions-reduction targets, relative to 2005 levels:

  • A reduction of 17 percent by 2020
  • A reduction of 42 percent by 2030 as an intermediate target
  • A reduction of 80 percent by 2050 for climate stabilization

A key point the report makes is that “This is a modest level of emissions reductions; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, endorses a significantly more ambitious target of 25 percent to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.” Equally important, the IPCC says that stabilizing at total atmospheric greenhouse gas levels of 450 ppm CO2-equivalent requires taking U.S. emissions down more than 80% from 1990 levels by 2050.

So, while the 2020 target is “easy” to meet at low cost by substituting gas for coal (if we ignore the issue of methane leakage), the 2030 and 2050 targets set a very sharp constraint on total fossil fuel consumption, including natural gas:

 

In the most recent set of data released by EPA, total domestic CO2 emissions were 5,612.9 mmt in 2011, with 5,277.2 mmt of those CO2 emissions coming from the combustion of fossil fuels. By 2030 it is possible to expect approximately a 50 percent decline in emissions from coal and a 30 percent decline from oil, assuming aggressive vehicle-fleet turnover with new fuel-economy standards, strict EPA regulations of carbon pollution from coal plants, and increased coal-to-gas switching. Even if natural-gas use stays constant during this interval to 2030, therefore, CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels would still be at 3,716.5 mmt, which exceeds the modest 2030 emissions-reduction goal of 3,334.3 mmt of CO2. The use of natural gas therefore cannot expand unchecked. Even minor increases in the near term mean that we will need to aggressively drive coal and oil from the U.S. fuel mix.

There simply is no room for substantial expansion of natural gas over the next decade. And for those who don’t want very sharp decreases in gas after the next decade, the only hope would be successful demonstration and commercialization and mass deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which right now is going nowhere due to myriad practical problems and general disinterest by the fossil fuel industry.

That’s why the CAP report has this key recommendation:

Ensure that natural-gas infrastructure and capacity are not overbuilt. The increased supply of natural gas has lowered gas prices, thereby increasing demand for gas to generate electricity. This should not, however, lead to a significant increase in natural-gas electricity-generation capacity. Modeling of a natural-gas bridge in the context of climate change suggests that natural-gas generation should peak within approximately 40 percent of total energy supply. Any new natural-gas generation capacity in excess of what is needed to meet this 40 percent threshold could lead to new capital investments in natural-gas plants that would have to be retired early once the transition to lower-carbon sources is complete, thereby wasting some of these investments. Writing off these assets would likely translate to a rate hike on consumers, a scenario that would make a transition to zero-carbon fuel sources much more expensive and difficult. A national CES would help prevent overbuilding natural-gas capacity. State-level renewable portfolio standards, or RPS, would help achieve this goal as well. (An important note of caution regarding any decision to increase natural-gas exports is that increased demand is likely to contribute to overbuilt infrastructure, which, as we note, could make the transition to renewable fuels difficult.)

I explained last year why “Exporting Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Is Bad For The Climate — And A Very Poor Long-Term Investment.”

Any substantial investment in new, long-lasting natural gas infrastructure is a major diversion of resources far better spent on the inevitable transition to carbon free power. That is why the report recommends policies to ensure that natural gas does not substitute for or slow down renewable energy: Any “expansion of natural gas should be used to create dedicated revenues to support aggressive investments in research, development, and deployment of clean energy technologies; aggressive investments in energy efficiency; and investments in the resilience of communities threatened by climate-related extreme weather.”

In short, “the expansion of natural gas should be used to create a financial bridge to a zero-carbon economy and climate stabilization.”

As part of that, CAP continues to recommend a carbon price to help ensure that any new natural gas only displaces coal, not renewables.

Develop a domestic carbon price. CAP has advocated several policies for pricing carbon, both directly through a carbon tax and market-based mechanisms such as cap and trade and indirectly through measures such as EPA regulation. A carbon tax would raise revenue, stimulate investment in clean energy technologies, and create jobs while reducing carbon pollution. It is a win-win measure that could untangle the ongoing federal budget debate.

The report notes that because natural gas is mostly methane, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas, any substantial leakage of methane during the entire life cycle from production to combustion vitiates much if not all of the climate benefit of shifting from coal to gas. Some recent studies find a very high rate of leakage — see “NOAA Confirms High Methane Leakage Rate Up To 9% From Gas Fields, Gutting Climate Benefit.”

I think it is at best premature to expand natural gas use substantially until we have resolved the leakage issue.

Finally, the report recommends, “The natural-gas expansion must be managed in an environmentally sustainable manner.” I personally believe the jury is out on whether that is even possible (see “Natural Gas, Once A Bridge, Now A Gangplank”). A Propublica exposé in Scientific American, “Are Fracking Wastewater Wells Poisoning the Ground beneath Our Feet?” reported:

“In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted,” said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA’s underground injection program in Washington. “A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die.”

Joseph Romm's picture

Thank Joseph for the Post!

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Discussions

John Miller's picture
John Miller on July 28, 2013

To set the record straight, the proposed Obama Administration carbon reduction targets were initially developed by the Democratically controlled House (H.R. 2454, ACESA) back in 2009.  The Democratically controlled Senate failed to address this bill then or since.  The IPCC and the current Obama Administration may support an 80%+ reduction in U.S. carbon emissions, but the U.S. Congress apparently does not.

As far as future natural gas consumption, until industrial scale power storage becomes a reasonably technology feasible and economic reality the replacement of coal and natural gas with renewables such as wind/solar PV is not feasibly beyond about a 20-30% Electric Power sector penetration level (i.e. these variable, non-dispatchable renewable power sources require natural gas peaking/intermediate power backup without feasible large-scale electric power storage backup).  This issue of course assumes that the cost of renewable power and replacement for liquid petroleum motor/heating fuels continue to drop substantially in future years in order for developing countries to justify not continuing to increase their consumption of coal, petroleum oil and possibly natural gas.

During the interim, natural gas will definitely be required to replace coal and possibly some level of petroleum.  Putting up barriers to installing efficient infrastructure for the production, transportation and consumption of cleaner burning natural gas is an extremely poor strategy for developed and developing nations around the world.  If access to available natural gas is restricted, the lack of cleaner energy alternatives could lead to significantly slower transition from high carbon intensity coal and petroleum.  Nuclear would however become much more attractive.

Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on July 29, 2013

Thanks for the post Joseph. I have to compare the fracking for natural gas here in America to the Tar Sands Oil extraction up in Canada with regard to ecological stability and environmental impacts. I do understand the need for clean burning fuels; bu tI find the avaoidance of large scale hydrogen production from sea water an extremely demonstrable example of the dedicated pursuit of fossil fuels to the last drop or kilogram as the prices climb to be ironicaly idiotic from a longevity of the species aspect. As the hydrogen content is all that combusts in gaseous and liquid fuels that are atomized; this iggnorrance is performed at our own peril as a specioes I would think.

Ron Wagner's picture
Ron Wagner on July 30, 2013

The best hope for reducing pollution of much worse pollutants and CO2 is by replacing coal burning with maximum fracking and use of natural gas. References:https://docs.google.com/document/d/19Yf0MWpo91vrlu-mmJtjB1ERukjJo5W41oi4RZVQBug/edit 

Solar and wind can help, but their contribution will be much smaller unless great advances are made in reducing their cost and increasing their efficiency. 

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