Why natural gas plays a key role in the clean energy transition
For most of the past decade, U.S. energy production thrived. Our domestic oil and gas industry unlocked massive new resources through hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Renewable electricity options like wind and solar expanded beyond expectations to assume a greater role in our power system and drive down costs.
The benefits were multiple: some of the lowest energy prices in the developed world, making energy more affordable at the gas pump and at home, a strengthened U.S. manufacturing capacity and declining domestic greenhouse gas emissions as the nation transitioned from coal toward natural gas and renewable energy.
This happy period was short-lived, however. COVID-19 wreaked havoc on global markets, forcing the oil and gas industry to retrench dramatically. Russia’s war on Ukraine further tightened global oil and gas supplies. Meanwhile, green energy campaigners worked to restrict capital to the oil and gas sector by pressuring investment companies to meet environmental, social and governance (ESG) benchmarks and by exploiting a grindingly slow federal permitting process for new energy projects, which ironically has hurt both renewable and conventional energy production.
To address these challenges, we need federal policies that both enable the nation to invest more in boosting near-term energy supplies, including through oil and gas production, but also reduce greenhouse gas emissions deeply over the long term. Otherwise, high and rising energy prices may threaten political support for the needed transition to clean energy.
Thankfully, we have a potential path forward: domestic natural gas, which sits at the nexus of our economic and climate priorities.
But to make gas more valuable in the clean energy transition, the industry must cut emissions, especially reducing fugitive leaks of methane to as close to zero as possible. That way U.S. gas exports can help other nations reduce emissions deeply by displacing coal, especially in Europe and Asia, even as U.S. gas continues to cut domestic coal use here at home.
Natural gas power plants are also uniquely compatible with renewable energy since they can provide rapid backup when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining. If we add ambitious requirements over time to decarbonize the utilization of gas through innovative technologies involving hydrogen, ammonia, chemicals and carbon capture, then the natural gas industry can have a key role in the journey to net-zero emissions.
Today, we’re stuck in an energy supply crunch that’s driven by the refusal of some policymakers and opinion leaders to acknowledge the powerful role that American energy abundance has played in our economic success and to acknowledge the time, effort and capital needed to ensure adequate ongoing supplies. At the same time, we’re confronting the crisis of climate change, driven at its core by fossil fuel emissions. Lacking a coherent approach to both issues, we face stymied global progress on energy security, price reductions and climate protection.
In particular, the once-routine federal process of approving projects to build the infrastructure to deliver natural gas supplies to market has become a focal point of the climate advocacy community, which has successfully thrown sand in the bureaucratic gears of siting and permitting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and carbon emissions out of the atmosphere. The result: high prices, constrained supplies and no comprehensive plan to reduce emissions. This approach will not reduce emissions to needed levels, while also weakening us economically and geopolitically.
For the United States, the stakes could hardly be higher. At a recent congressional hearing, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said that disinvesting in oil and gas was “the road to hell” for America. Similarly, author, globalist, clean energy advocate and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently urged the development of a “robust energy arsenal,” which “for the foreseeable future” would include “every kind of energy we have,” to fight the energy war in which we’re embroiled.
The November global climate conference in Egypt was dominated by talk of ending fossil fuel investments and paying the developing world for climate damages. Rather than single-issue advocacy, the United States needs a realistic balance of priorities and time frames. We need a strategy to promote abundant cheaper energy to make the world better off, more secure and more open to decarbonization. That starts with expanded U.S. natural gas production to strengthen our economy and supply the world.
To drive such a strategy at home, we need to find common ground across party and industry lines. The near-term climate policy that our nation — and the world — desperately needs may reside in the unlikeliest of places: the American gas industry. By enabling more secure and affordable supplies today, and ensuring these supplies are decarbonized over time, the natural gas sector can be the engine of the energy transition.
Sasha Mackler is executive director of the Energy Program at the Bipartisan Policy Center.