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Will Natural Gas Save Us from Climate Change?

The International Energy Agency issued a new report today that asks, and then answers, this question: "Are We Entering a Golden Age of Natural Gas?" You can download the 131-page document if you like, but the bottom line is (spoiler alert!): yes. However, it's important to understand that the authors' analysis is based on a set of assumptions that may or may not end up being true.

But assuming they're right, what does "golden age" really mean in this context? If you think it means we're going to enter some sort of golden age because of natural gas, think again. What the report actually says is that natural gas itself may about to experience a golden age — meaning we could be using more of it in the next few decades than we do now. By 2035, it says, natural gas could make up 25 percent of the world's energy supply. Natural gas already makes up 21 percent of our energy mix, so the difference between the upcoming golden age and the present age might not look all that significant.

A worker checks the valve of a gas pipe at a natural gas plant in Suining, in southwest China's Sichuan province on November 15, 2010. Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images.

Still, that would represent a 50 percent increase in how much natural gas the world consumes (it doesn't change the overall percentage much because there will be growth in other energy sources as well). So it's good news if you're in the natural-gas business. There are a couple of reasons why natural gas might gain in market share compared to other energy sources. First, there's lots of it, and, unlike oil, it's spread relatively evenly around the world. Second, new drilling technologies have made it relatively cheap to produce (some of these new methods are also highly controversial).

The question is, is it good for slowing down climate change? Natural gas is certainly a cleaner-burning fuel than coal, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions as well as emissions of soot and other pollution — so if the growth in gas-fired power plants comes at the expense of coal-fired plants, it would certainly help.

But if the decision to go with gas depends on price, as it probably will in most cases, its growth will probably displace the growth of even cleaner technologies like nuclear and renewables (cleaner in the carbon sense, that is; nuclear waste isn't necessarily "clean"). Beyond that, while natural gas emits only about half as much globe-warming carbon dioxide as coal does, that's still enough to keep temperatures rising.  Speaking at a press conference announcing the new report, IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka said, in part:

An expansion of gas use alone is no panacea for climate change

The authors of the report are also aware of the controversy surrounding some of those new drilling technologies. Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" — that is, the use of pressurized water to crack gas-bearing rock — can lead to the pollution of groundwater. And a study published last month in Climate Change Letters argues that fracking can release underground methane — a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right — into the atmosphere. That may make burning natural gas from fracking worse for the climate than mining and burning coal.

Those concerns may be manageable, according to the IEA chief economist, Fatih Birol, who told the New York Times' Clifford Krauss:

 The good news is most of the issues related to water and chemical use and the greenhouse gas issue can be addressed by better regulations, stiff regulations and companies using the best practices.

That may be true, or it may just be optimistic. But either way, it looks unlikely that natural gas will save the world from climate change, even if the golden age arrives. 

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Comments

By william Haaf (Kennett Square)
on June 12th, 2011

fracking technology release more methane from leaks and fugitive emissions than conventional nat gasdrilling.  The industry relies on estimates to do the calculations. These are best guesses.  The Nat gas industry must conduct actual airborne monitoring and really tighten up their drilling process; esp when they first open a well.

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By Dennis Dixon (Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA 01944)
on June 22nd, 2011

I have 47,000 miles on my Honda Civic GX, a compressed natural gas vehicle I purchased 2 years ago. I pay $2.39 at one-of-a-half-dozen stations here in Eastern Massachusetts, get ~41 miles-per-gallon, have a ~300 mile range, and have 30% less “bad” emissions. In addition to all those benefits,  I can only think that if we had some more CNG stations around, we would not be sending how-many-hundreds-of-billions-of dollars overseas to people who (generally) do not like us.

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By Sid Abma (Atascadero, CA, 93422)
on July 7th, 2011

Natural gas should be used a lot more efficiently than is now being done. Today anywhere from 20% to 65% of all the natural gas being combusted is going up chimney’s across the country as HOT exhaust into the atmosphere.
Why is this still being allowed?
Natural gas is a fuel that can be consumed to well over 90% efficiency. Instead of hot exhaust, COOL exhaust can be vented.  This is accomplished with the technology of condensing flue gas heat recovery. The heat in the waste exhaust gases is transfered into water that can then be used for space heating, heating industrial process water, or plant washdown water. It can be used to heat domestic water or even the swimming pool water at a hotel or university.
The US Department of Energy states that for every 1 million BTU’s recovered from these waste exhaust gases, and this recovered energy is utilized back in the building or facility, 118 lbs of CO2 will NOT be put into the atmosphere.
This technology is called CONDENSING flue gas heat recovery, which means that water is being created during this process. And this distilled water can be used for a number of different purposes. Do not waste the water!
If our natural gas could be used this efficiently, guess what. The natural gas that we have in the ground will last us a whole lot longer.

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By JP (Ithaca/ny/14850)
on July 7th, 2011

Current pipelines are in poor repair, and failing with extreme consequences.  Effectively there is no public refueling infrastructure and it would have to be built at great expense.  Burning CNG in an inefficient ICE vehicle is wasting a large amount of it’s energy, compared to burning it in a combined cycle generating plant to power EV’s.  Then there is the fracking mess.  Finally, the WSJ recently had an article with NG industry insiders talking about how there is probably less available NG than has been touted and that in effect the whole NG expansion is a ponzi scheme.  All things to consider.

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