Baseload, Bioenergy, Geothermal, Hydropower, Solar, Wind Power

Natural Gas: Bridge or Barrier to a Clean Energy Future?

Much has been made of the use of natural gas as a bridge to a clean renewable energy economy. The primary argument in support of natural gas is the fact that it is cleaner than coal and can be conveniently and cost-effectively substituted for it in power generation. Although on its face true, the claim should be considered in a real-world context.

The literal meaning of the phrase cleaner than coal is what it says and its veracity is generally accepted as fact. However, this is a little like saying that smoking Marlboro Lights won’t kill you as fast as smoking Marlboro reds. Arguably, you will not expire as quickly; although just as arguably, you will be suffering all through the additional time, given the known side effects.

Is natural gas the equivalent of smoking light? Consider that natural gas is an energy source whose extraction, transport and combustion produces harmful greenhouse gases. Gases, in the case of methane, that are more harmful and more dangerous than carbon. An energy source whose currently low price is the product of efficient extraction practices that themselves carry a less than acceptable level of environmental risk including: potential pollution of surface and ground waters; the withdrawal of massive amounts of water from constrained supplies; diminishing prime farmlands by mining for the sand used to fracture geologic formations; and ground pollution from chemical spills.

Too Big to Fail

In all honesty, I am not opposed to the use of natural gas as a short-term measure to reduce the amount of carbon emissions attributable to electric generation. On a relative harms scale natural gas is less bad for the environment than coal; and, notwithstanding the availability of proven and cost-effective clean energy alternatives, e.g. wind, solar and energy efficiency, any short-term strategy to slow the rise in carbon emissions from power generation will realistically include greater reliance on natural gas.

Well you might ask: if I am not saying “No” to natural gas, what am I saying? What I am saying is be…[a]ware! Adopting natural gas as a go-to transitional energy source is fraught with danger; a danger in the nature of “too big to fail” or, as in this case, “too big to be replaced” by clean renewable energy sources. A danger naturally brought about when too much money is invested in one place or on one technology or resource class.

The large—and what promises to be the continued—investment of billions of dollars in natural gas will inevitably lead to pushback by powerful political and money interests when confronted with the prospect of having to reduce reliance on this bridge technology. The consequence of the current/future concentration of capital serves to convert this transition technology into a speed bump, if not an outright barrier, to the nation’s transition to a fossil-free energy economy.

It is not that I believe swapping out fossil for renewable energy can be accomplished overnight. One cannot have been in the energy field for as long as I have without being acutely aware that so large a transition, as that required to go totally renewables, takes time — time to develop and refine technologies and operating models, as well as to put in place the regulatory and financial structures needed to support their deployment.

The Investment Argument

Big bucks have been and will continue to be invested over the next two decades in natural gas extraction, transport and combustion. It is estimated that over the course of the next 20 years, hundreds of billions of dollars will be invested just in the natural gas infrastructure. This does not necessarily include the construction or conversion of central generating plants nor the purchase of lands or land leases by natural gas drillers.

Does anyone honestly believe that natural gas interests are going to simply strand these investments—gradually or otherwise?

Remember that natural gas is not clean. What it has going for it is: domestic availability; currently low price; relative cleanliness as compared to the dirtiest fossil fuel; and compatibility with the existing power structure.

Today’s evidence overwhelmingly points to the fact that current domestic and global efforts to reduce carbon emissions are unlikely to do more than slow the drift towards catastrophic climate change. Recent domestic and international action, e.g. the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Accords, are to be commended; they should not, however, be counted on as anything other than a good start. Absent the emergence of some new transformative energy technology or a radical re-thinking of climate science—based on solid evidence—that the Earth’s climate is going through a phase that will quickly correct, greater reliance on renewables is inevitable.

What happens when 20 years from now the world is about to cross the threshold marking the difference between acceptable and unacceptable levels of atmospheric carbon and rising temperatures? Efforts will be made to reduce further the amount of carbon and other greenhouse gases attributable to the extraction, transport and combustion of the principal remaining fossil fuel. Inevitably these efforts will be resisted by the natural gas industry, just as efforts of the past decade have been resisted by the coal industry.

Why? Because a great deal of money has been invested in a resource the world can no longer afford. The seeds of resistance to tomorrow’s need for an energy economy principally powered by clean renewable energy technologies and sustainable practices are being planted today. Policies too encouraging of natural gas, e.g. natural gas exporting, continued subsidization or reducing support for renewables, will inevitably lead to an industry that is “too big to be easily replaced!”

If policy makers fail to give true meaning to the phrase “a bridge technology,” then today’s bridge will become tomorrow’s barrier. History will repeat itself if the proper balance between a cleaner today and a clean tomorrow is not struck. I encourage our political and thought leaders in the energy and environmental communities to be aware—very aware—of the danger inherent in smoking Marlboro Lights.

Lead image credit: Tim Evanson | Flickr