Energy secretary: Natural gas helps battle climate change – for now

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the U.S. natural-gas boom is helping the nation battle climate change despite concerns about leakage of the potent greenhouse gas methane from well sites.

His remarks show that although the Obama administration is studying methane questions, Moniz doesn’t believe the emissions erode the climate advantage of natural gas compared to carbon-heavy coal it's displacing in power generation.

“My look at the evidence to date suggests that this in no way eliminates the significant advantage of gas over coal for CO2 emissions,” Moniz told reporters Thursday at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

Some critics of gas production enabled with hydraulic fracturing – notably some Cornell University researchers – say leakage of methane at well sites and other points means that gas is as bad or worse than coal from a climate standpoint.

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The idea of natural gas as a climate loser is a largely contrarian view, but natural-gas advocates acknowledge the need for better control efforts and better data.

President Obama’s climate plan calls for development of an interagency methane strategy among the Energy Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to explore data, find gaps in data, work on ways to help spur methane emissions reductions, and take other steps.

“We are going to be looking at that very, very closely,” Moniz said.

Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide on a per-unit basis, but remains in the atmosphere for a much shorter period of time.

Moniz noted the U.S. is on track to meet its greenhouse gas reduction target of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

“About half of that progress we have made is from the natural-gas boom, in this case the market-driven substitution for coal,” he said.

The U.S. production boom has driven down costs and allowed gas to eat into coal’s share of the power generation market, while pro-coal critics of EPA pollution regulations say they are hastening the move away from coal.

Moniz, echoing a 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report he led before coming to the Energy Department, said that achieving the steep greenhouse gas reductions needed will eventually require a major de-carbonization of the energy sector.

“Eventually, if we are going to get down to really low-carbon emissions, natural gas, just like coal, would need to have carbon capture,” said Moniz.

“But that looks to be quite a ways off. In the meantime, gas will actually be part of the solution,” added Moniz, who has also advocated the need to widen deployment of renewable sources.

He also addressed controversies around hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

“To my knowledge, I still have not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater,” Moniz said Thursday.

But he noted other environmental problems and challenges associated with natural gas development due to poor completion of wells, surface spills of so-called flowback water, methane emissions and air quality problems around production sites.

“All of these are manageable. We know what to do about completing a well, et cetera, but manageable still has the requirement of being managed, being managed all the time,” Moniz said, citing the need for regulations, enforcement of them, and “self-enforcement” by the industry.

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