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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.”

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