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Natural Gas Provides Only a "Short and Narrow Bridge" to a Low-Carbon Future

The oil industry is pinning its hopes on natural gas. To hear oil executives tell it, natural gas is a veritable “bridge between a fossil fuel past and a carbon-free future,” as Bloomberg News put it recently.

It’s a story that makes sense on its face: natural gas emits about one-half of the carbon dioxide of coal and about three-quarters that of gasoline. Power plants can get more electricity per BTU of natural gas than coal, giving it a further advantage. And in an electric vehicle world, the future of gas could look bright.

But natural gas is not our climate savior. The fuel—which consists primarily of methane—is cleaner than coal and oil, but it is by no means carbon-free. For regions of the world potentially new to gas, expensive investments in pipeline or ocean transport and distribution infrastructure are required.

At best, any “bridge” that the fuel provides to a future where zero-carbon-producing power generation technologies take over is short and narrow. True, gas generation may help firm up intermittent renewables, but the goal would be to operate these as little as possible, minimizing the use of gas. And yes, gas could come back with success of carbon capture and storage (CCS), but advances in this technology have so far not panned out.

Are big investments in new gas infrastructure worth it if fully utilized for only 20 years or so? The gas bridge is getting shorter and narrower as we delay serious action on fighting climate change.

In 2015, delegates from 195 nations—including the U.S.—reached a landmark accord in Paris committing nearly every country to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The goal of the pact is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. The Earth has already warmed 1 degree since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution when humans began burning fossil fuels. (Technically the U.S. withdrew from the climate pact in June, but under the rules of the deal, the earliest any country can exit is November 2020. That means the U.S. will remain a party to the agreement for the next three years and just about all of President Trump’s current term. In any event,  devising an aggressive climate policy involves looking beyond any one administration.)

So what is our best hope of achieving that 2-degree target? How can we optimize that short and narrow bridge to the future?

Natural gas could have a modest role to play in the short-term. After all, the shale boom has generated lots of cheap gas in North America. In the U.S. the price of natural gas is about $3 per 1 million BTUs. Existing gas generation plants, if fully utilized, can allow a rapid shift from coal generation that could dramatically reduce US power sector emissions; a shift to gas in China could also greatly reduce its emissions, although the issue there is current lack of infrastructure and the relatively high cost of getting gas to the country.

Gas is also a flexible fuel. It has applications in residential and commercial heating, in industry, and potentially as a transportation fuel, either directly or transformed to a liquid.

The good news for the U.S. is the gas infrastructure is largely in place; the bad news—it is old and leaks methane into the atmosphere. This leakage is a nearly 35 times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, eroding much of its potential benefit compared with gasoline or diesel. And while the gas industry assures us that properly managed frack wells do not pose an environmental problem, induction of seismic activity from water injection and other environmental issues have occurred that have at a minimum created a concerned and wary public. So outside the power sector, especially considering leakage in the gas distributions system, a low-carbon future dictates that we phase out—rather than expand—our use of gas.

Indeed, the danger of moving ahead with investments in gas infrastructure and spreading the gas fracking boom worldwide is that once those costs are sunk, low cost gas could crowd out zero carbon options in power generation. It would also take pressure off of the drive for greater energy efficiency.

Despite the grand plans of oil company executives, it’s possible that in 20 years, gas and oil companies will be disappearing. The hope is that they will be replaced with companies focused on zero carbon energy, such as renewable wind and solar, sustainable biomass, or a next generation of inherently safe nuclear power, electrification, and energy efficiency. Research shows that renewable energy resources will supply just as much of America’s electricity demand as gas by the year 2040. This is thanks in part to production tax credits, and state level renewable energy requirements.

A serious commitment to long run climate goals requires we stay focused on planning for a zero-carbon world. A short and narrow bridge in that direction may be tempting, but we must be careful in our crossing. Otherwise our future leaders may be bemoaning our “addiction” to cheap gas, and the carbon emissions associated with it.

John Reilly is the Senior Lecturer and Co-Director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the Center for Environmental Policy Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on November 6, 2017

yes, gas could come back with success of carbon capture and storage (CCS), but advances in this technology have so far not panned out.

Allam cycle sCO2 turbines can capture CO2 at no extra cost.

Given a transport and storage cost of $9.13/MWh zero carbon NGPPs would be quite affordable. BTW, the US has space for 2.4 trillion tons of CO2 sequestration.

Of course, using this tech. with biomass derived syngas would be carbon negative.

We should know soon, Net Power’s demo plant in La Porte is scheduled for completion just in time for Christmas.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 6, 2017

Rex, add transport and storage cost of $9.13/MWh to a combined plant operation/fuel cost of $33/MWh, and you end up with a total marginal cost of $42/MWh – 36% higher than 1980s-era nuclear.

That’s accepting your T&S cost as a given, whether the nearest geology suitable for CCS is local or 1,000 miles away. Accepting CCS is verifiable, and not a cheap illusion fabricated by your gas utility, as they vent CO2 invisibly and unaccountably to the atmosphere.

Beyond unaffordable, your vision would be quite impossible.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on November 6, 2017

If an Allam-cycle turbine can operate on stored heat from e.g. molten silicon, it could be the energy buffer that renewables need so badly.  The biggest problem with expansion of wind and solar is absorbing their peaks and ramping other output to offset their declines.  If much of system demand at peak output is resistance heaters in heat batteries, that problem disappears; the dump load can be scaled to any required size.  The availability of heat from the heat battery allows turbines to be kept spinning without any fuel consumption.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on November 7, 2017

Well that sounds like a useful storage idea, but I was actually imagining a Carbon Dioxide Removal scheme using gasified biomass.

Given that Allam-cycle tech. could provide a BECCS functionality, it could provide up to 1.75 gigatons of CDR/year in the US :

Carbon’s weight is 12, Oxygen’s weight is 16.

Weight of CO2 is 12 + 2 x 16, 12 + 32 = 44.

So carbon is ~27. 3% the weight of CO2.

Now, the DOE estimates a billion dry tons of biomass can be grown each year w/out adverse environmental impact.

And, from :

“The carbon content of vegetation is surprisingly constant across a wide variety of tissue types and species. Schlesinger (1991) noted that C content of biomass is almost always found to be between 45 and 50% (by oven-dry mass).”

In many applications, the carbon content of vegetation may be estimated by simply taking a fraction of the biomass, say

C = .475B where C is carbon content by mass, and B is oven-dry biomass.

So, a billion dry tons of biomass represents the carbon in 475MT/.273 = 1.75 gigatons of CO2.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on November 7, 2017

WRT $9.13/MWh, that figure comes from the graph in this TEC article.

WRT to 80’s nuclear costs, Lazard v11 has just been published, this is the latest comparative LCOE chart:

WRT accountability, if we tax carbon emissions the taxing authority would have to verify emissions, so your scheme of venting invisibly would would also have to be kept invisible from the IRS.

So, though the plant is not online yet, it has weathered Harvey well, hopefully there’ll be little delay.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 7, 2017

Rex, you haven’t provided readers with any idea to what “this TEC article” refers.

And if you trust an investment bank managing $billions in renewables (and CCS) investments for accurate data on the potential of a technology from which they stand to profit, I have some wonderful property in Florida for you, guaranteed 100% hurricane-free (no, really).

And unless you believe the IRS will someday have a team of dedicated field inspectors trained in petroleum engineering to inspect CCS facilities across the country, any captured CO2 will be invisibly stored in the atmosphere – as economical, as it is irresponsible.

And as reassuring as it is to know a non-functional plant promising an unproven technology has weathered Harvey well, more reassuring is that Texas’s two nuclear plants – Comanche Peak and South Texas – never stopped generating 4.5 billion watts of electricity through the storm. The steady supply of power coming from the plants must help the Houston economy recover so petroleum companies in the area can resume their efforts to shut them down.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on November 7, 2017

The real problem with reliance on natural gas as a lower carbon alternative to coal and diesel for backing renewables is that natural gas may not be cheap and abundant for very long.

Opinions that one hears as to how robust and long-lived the fracking revolution may be are all over the map. It’s hard to tell which “experts” are presenting objective and well-informed forecasts (literally “well’ informed), and which are shilling for views from which they or their employers stand to profit.

Nobody disputes that fracked wells in tight sand and shale formations deplete very quickly compared to conventional wells. Maintaining a stable overall production level depends on a steady stream of new wells. It also seems to be widely conceded that oil and gas from shale have yet to turn a positive cash flow for any company involved. Prices are too low. Companies are being kept afloat by low interest loans and hopes for higher prices in the future. The more cynical say that the entire enterprise amounts to a giant Ponzi scheme.

Whatever. One thing that seems clear to me is that if the smart money in oil and gas were confident that current low gas prices were robust, we’d be seeing much more aggressive investment in gas-to-liquids and LNG export facilities. There’s some cautious activity there, but the caution itself speaks loudly.

If natural gas prices soar into the $6.00 to $8.000 range — as they have before and easily could again — then power from gas will no longer look cheap. The “bridge” could collapse under its own weight, dumping us all into the creek below. And we all know the name of that proverbial creek.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on November 8, 2017

If you think Lazard’s a liar, then who do you prefer?

As to the IRS, at 500MT/yr of CO2 from natgas, a carbon tax of $10/ton would yield $5B, highly motivational.

BTW, here’s a link to that article.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 8, 2017

Rex, because EIA is one of the few sources without skin in the game, I trust them to be brutally honest.

Lazard and Hal Harvey (Energy Innovations, your link) are not liars but promoters, aiming to build up the bright, beautiful renewable future in investors’ minds so they can then sell them down the river. Despite a dismal record of long-term predictions for renewables, there are enough people who believe a rewrite of thermodynamics is just around the corner (aka, suckers) to make a pretty good living off them.

Re: the IRS, $5B is pocket change. Exxon-Mobil is predicted to earn forty-six times that in 2017 ($232B), and that’s only one of the US companies in the game. Royal Dutch Shell is expected to bring in even more – $256 billion – which explains how they can afford to pay experts like David Hone a good living to examine arcane minutiae of climate agreements here on TEC, and elsewhere. All while avoiding the N-word – “nuclear” – like the plague.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on November 9, 2017

Not liars? Promoters building up people to sell them down the river sound like liars to me.

As I’ve said before, it’s EIA that has a dismal record on renewables prediction, nonetheless here are some selections from their Projected LCOE in the U.S. by 2022 (as of 2016) $/MWh, where cwavg is the capacity weighted average:

min cwavg max plant type

63.1 NB 90.4 Natural Gas-fired Advanced CC with CCS
95.9 96.2 104.3 Advanced Nuclear
43.4 55.8 75.6 Wind Onshore
58.3 73.7 143.0 Solar PV

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 9, 2017

Your position seems to be EIA’s predictions have been dismal when they disfavor your technology, but less-than-dismal when they don’t.

Either: 1) EIA’s model is flawed, or 2) EIA is intentionally skewing their predictions to favor one technology over another, or 3) You’re only endorsing data which supports your personal biases.

If the answer is #1 or #2, there’s no reason to cite EIA at all. Leaving #3 as the most likely explanation.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on November 9, 2017

Can you build us some of that 1980s-era nuclear?

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on November 9, 2017

We have all these stupid Lazard investors building wind and solar. No wonder those coal guys are complaining.

According to Lazard’s “fake numbers ” renewables and storage are now cheaper than NG peakers. So now all of these stupid investors will be building storage. That’s gonna kill all of those NG peakers. Soon NG industry will be complaining.

By the way, Exxon will not have earnings of $230B in 2017. Those are its revenues not its earning/profits. Kind of a big difference.

As an example, GM had revenues of $150B in their FY2008 but they actually lost 1.5B. Let me know if you need any more examples.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on November 9, 2017

Sounds like you don’t like the Lazard numbers.

So are you throwing your weight behind the EIA numbers?

Rudolf Huber's picture
Rudolf Huber on November 9, 2017

Better than coal and oil seems to hold no value for Environmetalists. They have so far not accounted honestly for the true cost of renewables and a EV battery holds a 8 year carbon debt that a Natural Gas fuelled vehicle does not have. EV’s are not really carbon free like many try to sell us on. And Natural Gas has the potential to transform into Biomethane and Synthetic Methane which are both carbon neutral and hence cleaner than an EV. I really would like to see some honesty in this debate instead of the always same old and wrong methaphors.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on November 9, 2017

According to Lazard’s “fake numbers ” renewables and storage are now cheaper than NG peakers.

We know the numbers are fake because the storage they quote is mere hours, when all “renewables” besides hydro and biomass are ruled by the short-term weather and often have running deficits equivalent to multiple days of average system output.  If they have not specced storage to cover the 99% case, they will be falling back to natural gas or perhaps oil (the oil companies which own the US natural gas systems get paid either way).

Last year, South Australia pleaded with its power company to turn a mothballed NG plant back on to provide critically-needed power.  Those peakers are not going away, unless you want rolling blackouts to be a regular feature of life.

US citizens didn’t vote to become part of the third world, whether in population or in utilities.  A few such well-publicized incidents will kill the Green fantasy for at least a generation, maybe two.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on November 9, 2017

You can do both, with the same machine.  In stored-heat mode, it recycles its end gases (maybe including water, though you might want to go dry) back to the hot side which receives heat from the silicon heat battery.  In fuel-burning mode, it burns syngas plus oxygen in a recycled gas stream.  All you have to do is switch the recuperator output from the heat exchanger (fed by the heat battery) to the combustor and turn the oxygen plant and water/CO2 extractor on.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 9, 2017

Joe, the IRS will have $257 billion in combined profits from oil companies operating in the U.S. and Canada, or over fifty times the IRS’s funding to chase after, instead of the forty-seven times I had previously cited. Thanks for the correction!

In recent days, the New York Times has published two important articles which must be discouraging for any renewables disciple. The first points out carbon intensity has declined by not 30%, not 10%, but four percent since the Kyoto Accord was signed 20 years ago. That’s pathetic, and kicks your rampant insistence carbon emissions are declining to the curb. Globally, $2 trillion has been wasted on environmental waste masquerading as “renewable” energy in the last decade alone. Fortunately, “renewables” entrepreneurs have been contributing to a decommissioning fund to clean up the mess that remains (there is a decommissioning fund, isn’t there?).

The second article points out oil companies are more profitable than ever (Exxon-Mobil had its biggest quarter in history) and far from being challenged by “renewables”, they have them to thank for their growth.
Wind and Solar Power Advance, but Carbon Refuses to Retreat
Peak Oil? Majors Aren’t Buying Into the Threat From Renewables

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 9, 2017

Joe, 1970s-era Watts Bar II came on line just last year. And any reasons not to build more Gen-2 nuclear are rooted in irrational fear and ignorance. If that’s your basis, argument is a waste of time.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on November 10, 2017

Sorry but I can not see the economy collapsing with a limoited time of 6-8$/ MMBTU at once. So explain the creek you see a bit further. A price of 6-8$ would leave wind and solar without much competition resulting in a fast growth in that area. Limited by the red tape attached to grid extensions. In case it will hinder economical development a lot i think a lot of this red tape will disappear.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on November 10, 2017

No, Bob, I cited EIA numbers because you said you trusted them. They’ve often been criticized for getting renewable’s growth and costs wrong, as I’ve explained to you before.

Even so, both Lazard and EIA show nuclear being significantly more costly than solar, wind, or natgas with CCS.

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