Is Natural Gas the Way to a Greener Energy Future?

By Joseph Calamia | June 28, 2010 4:42 pm

burnerWhen it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, any fossil fuel looks bad compared to wind, solar, and even nuclear power sources. But how do fossil fuels stack up against one another? Natural gas is a lot better emissions-wise compared to coal, according to a new report, and may serve as a temporary coal stand-in over the coming decades, until the cost of alternative energy sources comes down.

The MIT Energy Initiative drafted an 83-page report that looked both at the United States’ natural gas supply and the fuel’s possibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Over the past two years, the MIT group discussed natural gas use with industry leaders, environmental groups, and government officials. They presented their findings and recommendations to legislators and senior administration officials in Washington last week.

“Much has been said about natural gas as a bridge to a low-carbon future, with little underlying analysis to back up this contention.  The analysis in this study provides the confirmation—natural gas truly is a bridge to a low-carbon future,” said MITEI Director Ernest J. Moniz in introducing the report. [MIT News]

The report’s main points:

Emissions Compared to Coal

Currently, the United States gets almost half of its power from coal, but the team expects this to change as cap and trade schemes or other regulations make traditional coal plants’ emissions too costly. Regulations and increasing fuel costs, the report forecasts, will lead to a 30 percent increase in electricity prices by 2030 and 45 percent increase by 2050.

Imagining a future where carbon emission rules require industrialized nations to reduce CO2 emissions by 50 percent by 2050, the report’s authors say that natural gas will become preferable to coal use and mostly displace it.

“Because national energy use is substantially reduced [given the team’s carbon emissions pricing-scheme], the share represented by gas is projected to rise from about 20 percent of the current national total to around 40 percent in 2040,” said the MIT researchers. When used to fire a power plant, gas emits about half of the carbon dioxide emissions as conventional coal plants. [New York Times]

Total Natural Gas Supply

The report estimates the United States’ natural gas deposits at about 2,000 trillion cubic feet (15,000 trillion gallons), including “unconventional sources” such as natural gas produced from shale. Given current domestic consumption rates, the researchers expect that this could last the country for 92 years.

The report also looked at the total amount of natural gas available beyond North America. They estimate this supply at 16,200 trillion cubic feet (121,000 trillion gallons), excluding the US and Canada and unconventional sources. The report’s authors believe the global supply could last for 160 years given current global consumption.

Natural Gas Risks?

The report acknowledges that there are risks to increasing natural gas use–in particular, there are risks associated with the “unconventional” gas reserves in shale deposits. To extract this natural gas requires drilling that can lead to problems such as shallow freshwater aquifer contamination, surface water contamination, and community disturbance, due to drilling and fracturing activities.

As reported by Treehugger, filmmaker Josh Fox has portrayed some of the dangers of hydraulic fracturing–called “fracking”–in his new documentary, Gasland. In one scene from his film, an affected resident sets his tap water on fire (see trailer below).

Some publications have also zeroed in on the risks of unconventional gas reserves; a Vanity Fair article looks at a Pennsylvania town transformed by fracking, while the investigative journalists of ProPublica have published a series of articles on the environmental hazards of gas drilling. But the MIT report maintains that regulations should be sufficient to manage the risks.

Cautious Optimism

The report’s authors also reiterate that natural gas is not a solution, but could help the nation transition to greener energy sources.

“Though gas frequently is touted as a ‘bridge’ to the future, continuing effort is needed to prepare for that future, lest the gift of greater domestic gas resources turn out to be a bridge with no landing point on the far bank,” the report says. [Scientific American via ClimateWire]

As the price of solar and wind power decrease and regulation increases, the report’s authors suspect that even natural gas will be too costly by 2050, forcing the move to a low-carbon future.

“In the very long run, very tight carbon constraints will likely phase out natural gas power generation in favor of zero-carbon or extremely low-carbon energy sources such as renewables, nuclear power or natural gas and coal with carbon capture and storage.  For the next several decades, however, natural gas will play a crucial role in enabling very substantial reductions in carbon emissions.” [MIT News]

Related Content:
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DISCOVER: Nations Stake Their Claims to a Melting Arctic, on the oil and gas rush
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Image: flickr / AZAdam

  • Beth Little

    The problem with the statement “the MIT report maintains that regulations should be sufficient to manage the risks.” is that 1. sufficient regulations do not exist; 2. states do not have sufficient resources to enforce what regulations do exist; and 3. extractive industries have a culture of violating regulations whenever they think they can get away with it or when the price (fine) for violations is less than the cost of obeying the regulations.

    In WV there is no regulation regarding water withdrawals, such as the millions of gallons needed for fracking; there is no standard for the maximum total dissolved solids (tds) in surface waterways, where drilling wastewater is discharged; there is no monitoring or disclosure of the contents of fracing fluids, which are reportedly being disposed of in underground injection wells; and there are 17 inspectors for over 50,000 existing wells in the state and hundreds more being permitted annually as Marcellus drilling cranks up.

    In other states it took overwhelming numbers of “bad incidents” before better legislation was passed, which industry fought with public relations campaigns full of lies and large donations to politicians; so here in WV, already a “sacrifice zone” for coal, we have little hope of relief.

    Gas industry executives are smooth and sharp. They come across as concerned with intentions of being good neighbors. They talk a good line to the media. But many of the drilling contractors are owned and operated by cowboys that are little better than thugs.

    I expect that the legacy of increasing natural gas production will be the loss of major portions of a more valuable resource: fresh drinking water.

  • Barbara

    What about the natural gas that is produced every day by our livestock, and ourselves through our waste products?

    There is power in our poop.

  • Joseph Calamia

    Thank you for your comments.

  • David E. Bruderly PE

    The MIT study suffers from too much domination by status quo thinking in both the electric and transportation sectors. The findings discount the potential of demand side management and renewable and high-efficiency distributed power generation to significantly reduce demand growth for electricity supplied from central power stations. The direct use of natural gas for high-efficiency tri-gen, instant water heaters, HVAC and motor fuels is much more cost-effective for the CONSUMER, more efficient and cleaner than replacing coal plants with megawatt scale central natural gas combined-cycle systems. Wind, solar electric and distributed, high efficiency biomass and natural gas tri-gen plants must not be crowded out by a rush to cheap, inefficient uses of natural gas in inefficient central power stations. The MIT study also understates the potential for natural gas motor fuels to immediately start replacing liquid petroleum-based motor fuels in all types and sizes of motor vehicles, from light-duty to heavy-duty as well as rail. There is only legitimate reason why natural gas vehicles may NOT be cost-competitive with gasoline or diesel vehilces at this time; NGVs are NOT mass produced. When OEMs start producing NGVs by the millions to capture economies of scale these cleaner, safer, reliable vehicles will quickly become affordable. And CNG fuel stations will crop up like mushrooms. If a reckless rush from coal to natural gas is moderated by rational renewable electric portfolio standards and other state and federal policies that actually start creating integrated energy planning based on emissions and cost performance criteria then consumers will soon be able to enjoy cleaner electricity and cleaner mobility. Aggressive demand side management, high-efficiency distributed electric power generation, renewable electric power generation and widespread conversion to natural gas vehicles will not only reduce energy costs to consumers NOW but create a solid foundation for even more sustainable energy systems TOMORROW.

  • Fred Kesinger

    I would have thought the MIT Study would have more independent funding. Funding by the natural gas industry casts doubt on the intital outcome.

  • Vince

    Halliburton Loophole ! A phrase that should be repeated over and over again like the word ‘terrorism’.


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