Natural gas is the 'real' green new deal

Natural gas is the 'real' green new deal
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Early this year, with great fanfare, several members of Congress proposed a “Green New Deal” to battle climate change through a rapid and drastic reduction in the production and consumption of fossil fuels. Specifically, the program called for eliminating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by “greening” all new and existing buildings in the U.S., embracing distributed power generation and smart grids, and meeting 100 percent of electricity demand by 2030 with zero-emission energy sources — i.e., no fossil fuels and no nukes. 

In late March, a procedural vote on the Green New Deal failed in the Senate, killing any possible action through the end of 2020. Nonetheless, climate change promises to be a major issue in next year’s presidential and congressional elections.

As proposed, the Green New Deal was naively impractical and prohibitively expensive. For example, according to a study by the Mises Institute, transition to a power sector with net zero emissions of greenhouse gases in 10 years would require a capital investment of $5.4 trillion by 2029. In addition, the annual operation, maintenance and capital-recovery costs would exceed $387 billion.

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Amid all the brouhaha over climate change, a major milestone has been ignored — namely, that America’s greenhouse gas emissions are 13 percent lower today than in 2005, even with an economy that is a third larger. This achievement isn’t the result of environmental regulations or the huge subsidies available to wind and solar investors; rather, it has been the increased use of natural gas that has helped reduce GHGs in the U.S.

It is a well-known fact that natural gas burns a lot cleaner than coal or oil. At the same time, thanks to the “shale revolution,” natural gas is abundant, inexpensive and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Consequently, the power generation sector, which is responsible for about 25 percent of GHGs in the U.S., has moved quickly to adopt natural gas. Electric utilities have shuttered more than 250 coal plants since 2010 and a dozen more will be closed this year. A decade ago, coal-fired generation accounted for about 50 percent of the electrons coursing through the nation’s power grids but by last year, that percentage had dropped to 27. No utility in the nation has plans to build a new coal plant.

Opponents of fossil fuels acknowledge that gas has a smaller carbon footprint than coal but nonetheless object to its use because of methane (CH4) releases associated with its production and transportation. Because the heat-trapping characteristics of methane are 20 times greater than carbon dioxide, environmentalists have good reason to be concerned. But here again they fail to acknowledge the tremendous progress that has been made in recent years to contain methane emissions.

According to recent data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Information Administration, methane emissions from onshore oil and natural gas production fell 24 percent between 2011 and 2017, even as production increased by almost 50 percent and 730,000 miles of new transmission and distribution pipelines were added. What’s more, the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), a coalition of global energy companies, has committed to cutting average methane intensity by at least 20 percent and total GHG emission levels by one-third by 2025. Already, participants have conducted more than 156,000 leak-monitoring surveys across 78,000 production sites in the U.S.

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America’s natural gas boom also is helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions abroad. From virtually zero a few years ago, liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports approached 800 billion cubic feet last year. With capacity expected to double by the end of this year, export volumes will continue to grow exponentially. Indeed, by 2024 the U.S. is projected to be the world’s second largest exporter of LNG, after Qatar

Countries such as China, India and Japan — which still rely heavily on coal for power generation — are among the largest purchasers of American LNG. To the degree they substitute our “clean gas” for their domestic or imported “dirty coal,” the air becomes cleaner while global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

Cheap natural gas, made available by hydraulic fracturing of deep shale, is the “real” green new deal that has made the U.S. the world leader in reducing carbon emissions. Though President TrumpDonald John TrumpFlorida GOP lawmaker says he's 'thinking' about impeachment Democrats introduce 'THUG Act' to block funding for G-7 at Trump resort Kurdish group PKK pens open letter rebuking Trump's comparison to ISIS MORE took us out of the Paris Climate Treaty, we will surely exceed the carbon reduction targets in that agreement, and well ahead of schedule.

Bernard L. Weinstein is associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute and an adjunct professor of business economics in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Follow on Twitter @SMUCox.