Natural Gas Won't Cure Climate Change — But It Could Help

 

Takeaway

  • Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen to their lowest level since the mid-1990s, as natural gas has reduced the need for coal power plants
  • Methane, the principal component of natural gas, is also a potent greenhouse gas
  • Economic incentives could promote development of low-emissions technologies

In addition to sparking a renaissance in drilling and energy production in recent years, the booming U.S. natural gas market has also brought opportunities to address climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen to their lowest level since the mid-1990s, due in large part to reduced reliance on coal-fired power plants, which emit twice as much carbon dioxide as generators fueled by natural gas.

But the increased use of gas is not a permanent fix to America’s climate problems, according to a report released this month by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in association with researchers at The University of Texas at Austin.

Michael Webber, an associate professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering, and Fred Beach, assistant director for policy studies at the Energy Institute, collaborated on the report with co-authors at C2ES, a nonprofit that studies energy and climate policy.

The group concluded that to ensure deeper emissions reductions in the long run, other low-carbon energy sources — such as wind, solar, and nuclear power — will need to play a larger role in the nation’s electric grid. The report also identifies opportunities to reduce greenhouse emissions by substituting natural gas for coal and oil in the transportation, manufacturing, and building sectors.

“The natural gas boom can help grow the economy while shrinking our carbon footprint, and there’s much greater potential on both fronts,” C2ES President Eileen Claussen said when the study was presented on June 4. “But we need a diverse energy supply. Natural gas is not carbon-free, and we can’t let it crowd out nuclear and renewables. It’s also critical that we do a better job of measuring and minimizing methane releases.”

The research highlighted a number of opportunities for expanding the use of natural gas, as well as several challenges that stand in the way of more widespread adoption.

Opportunities

Homes and Businesses — Replace certain conventional electric appliances, such as space and water heaters, with natural gas models that provide energy with lower emissions

Transportation — Reduce carbon emissions and reliance on petroleum by substituting natural gas for diesel and gasoline in fleets and heavy-duty trucks

Manufacturing — Encourage manufacturers to adopt combined heat and power systems, which use heat energy that is otherwise wasted

On-Site Power — Expand the use of natural gas-powered fuel cells and micro-turbines to produce efficient, on-site energy that makes use of waste heat

Challenges

Funding — Bring down the high cost of building the infrastructure to deliver natural gas to more homes and businesses

Competing Renewable Sources — Ensure that natural gas complements zero-carbon energy sources such as nuclear, wind, and solar electricity, rather than crowding them out

Regulation — Revise regulatory hurdles and address the current lack of incentives for on-site power generation

Methane Leaks — Identify strategies for reducing leaks of methane — the principal component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas — during the production, transmission, and distribution processes

Next Steps

Public policy initiatives will be a key component of the effort to make natural gas a viable long-term fuel option. For example, the C2ES report recommends that states work together to create more uniform policies and regulations, which would make it easier for energy providers to plan ahead and remain in compliance.

The report proposes economic incentives to promote development of technologies that reduce the need for long-distance electricity transmission, such as micro-turbines that generate power on-site. Advancements in carbon capture-and-storage technologies will also be needed to achieve long-range emissions cuts.

Education will be another important factor. The report emphasizes a need to inform consumers and business owners about the benefits of using more efficient natural gas appliances, and to provide manufacturers with information about the advantages of installing more efficient heat and power systems.

“It is important to better understand and more accurately measure the greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas production,” the report concludes. “A future with expanded natural gas use will require diligence to ensure that potential benefits to the climate are achieved.”

 

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Faculty in this Article

Michael Webber

Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering Cockrell School of Engineering

Michael Webber is the Deputy Director of the Energy Institute, Josey Centennial Fellow in Energy Resources, Co-Director of the Clean Energy...

Michael Webber teaches in the Texas Executive Education program, featuring open enrollment, custom and certificate classes for executives and organization teams.

Fred Beach

Post-Doctoral Fellow Center for International Energy & Environmental Policy

Fred C. Beach is a Fellow in both the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy (Jackson School of Geosciences) and the Webber...

About The Author

Rob Heidrick

Writer, McCombs School of Business

Born and raised in Austin, writer Rob Heidrick has spent several years as a contributor and editor at local magazines and community newspapers. He...

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