Maximizing the climate benefits of natural gas exports
A major question facing American energy and climate policymakers today is what role abundant U.S. natural gas should play in the global clean energy transition. Some environmental activists oppose all gas use. But a new report from the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) finds that expanding U.S. liquefied natural gas exports can lower global greenhouse gas emissions significantly, especially if fugitive emissions of methane are deeply reduced.
The climate benefits of America’s shale gas revolution have been evident domestically for years. More than three-fifths of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions reductions over the period 2005 to 2020 were due to coal-fired power plants being replaced by natural gas plants.
In the last year, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. has also become the world’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter, more than doubling deliveries to Europe. This has helped the EU’s economy withstand the cutoff of most Russian gas, with clear geopolitical and economic benefits. Less appreciated are the emissions reductions achieved, since American LNG has limited the growth in the EU’s coal and also reduced use of higher methane-leaking Russian gas.
This domestic and European success in cutting emissions using gas can now be replicated on a global basis. Coal to U.S. LNG switching delivers net greenhouse gas emissions reductions of between 40 to 50 percent. In China, by far the world’s largest coal user and greenhouse gas emitter, coal to gas switching can reduce total emissions by as much as 35 percent.
Such large reductions in coal use are urgently needed for climate protection, since coal is by far the largest source of global emissions. In fact, last year global coal consumption reached an all-time high, fueled by record coal output in China, India and Indonesia, the three largest producers. These increases in coal use drove global greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures to record highs in 2022, belying any notion that current climate policies alone have been effective in rapidly reducing coal emissions. Chinese coal mines also emit massive plumes of methane that account for 20 percent of total global methane emissions from all fossil fuels and biomass combined, making the climate case for global coal-to-gas switching even more compelling.
But to maximize the climate benefits of gas exports, the U.S. must more aggressively reduce fugitive emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in causing warming over two decades. Mitigation of methane is also uniquely important in limiting near-term global temperature increases that are causing dangerous and expensive climate impacts, and potentially climatic tipping points. The new PPI report makes policy recommendations needed provide the largest possible climate benefits of US LNG exports, including:
- Cut methane emissions from U.S. gas deeply. Adopt a national goal of cutting lifecycle methane emissions from U.S. gas to less than 0.3 percent by 2030, from about 1.7 percent today, making U.S. gas demonstrably the lowest emitting in the world. New methane detection technologies, including satellites, can prove these reductions.
- Retire coal plants. U.S. coal-fired power plants still provide 22 percent of domestic electricity, and should be retired including through new federal power plant regulations. Equally, nations around the world must undertake more aggressive coal plant closures.
- Double U.S. LNG exports. The U.S. should double LNG exports levels to coal-dependent nations to encourage coal-to-gas switching. But increased exports mean the U.S. must increase overall gas production by at least 10 percent to keep domestic prices low, while also enacting permitting reforms to expand gas pipelines and other infrastructure.
- Urge importing nations to establish methane standards. Major gas importing regions like the EU and nations in Asia should establish methane emissions regulations for all gas imports.
- Require U.S. natural gas power plants to have net-zero CO2 by 2040. Along with renewable energy and electricity storage, gas-fired power plants with carbon capture and storage could form the basis of a net-zero U.S. electricity system, which could be copied around the world.
Most of these goals can be met quickly, since they build on existing trends. For example, ambitious new U.S. methane mitigation actions by the industry, Congress, and the Biden administration are already underway and can drive down fugitive emissions of methane from U.S. gas far below recent levels. Three-quarters of methane emissions can be mitigated with current technology, and half can be eliminated at zero net-cost to the oil and gas industry due to increases in gas yields.
Some opponents of gas contend that new gas pipelines will lock in long-term emissions, but much gas infrastructure can be retrofitted to carry hydrogen or carbon dioxide captured from power plants. European companies announced recently they will build new power plants that will run first on gas, then on hydrogen produced from gas with carbon capture and storage, and finally on hydrogen made using renewable energy. These investments are an example of what many energy technology experts expect to be a variegated electricity production system, with the wide range of natural gas and hydrogen related plants getting power from differing but increasingly clean sources.
America’s gas industry has the opportunity to lower emissions and gain a competitive advantage over other sources of gas, leading a global race to limit methane emissions and retire coal plants. Such advancements can cut billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year in the process. Along with larger investments in renewable and other forms of clean energy, making gas cleaner and more available for global export is a key way the U.S. gas industry can help combat climate change.
Paul Bledsoe is strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. He served as a staff member in the U.S. House, Senate Finance Committee, U.S. Interior Department and the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.
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