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.