Natural gas may not help in climate fight as promised

The touted "bridge fuel" to cleaner energy sources, natural gas, will not slow the increase of greenhouse gas emissions alone, according to a new study.

Released in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, the study finds that while natural gas emits dramatically less carbon dioxide than coal, it will not help the planet in the long run.


It comes down to how cheap natural gas is, the report states.

Inexpensive natural gas will compete with all energy sources, including nuclear, wind and solar, and would accelerate overall energy consumption.

"The effect is that abundant natural gas alone will do little to slow climate change," said lead author Haewon McJeon, an economist at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

"Global deployment of advanced natural gas production technology could double or triple the global natural gas production by 2050, but greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow in the absence of climate policies that promote lower carbon energy sources," McJeon added.

Replacing coal with natural gas will reduce carbon emissions in the short term, but because it is cheap, it will replace other energy sources that are less carbon- and greenhouse-gas-intensive.

Methane, a key component of natural gas, is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon, and is leaked during drilling operations.

Companies have taken steps to reduce leaks and improve the structure of wells, but environmentalists argue it is not enough.

The report states that in the long run, natural gas will not help stave off disastrous climate change if policies are not put in place to support expanding renewable energy.

President Obama credited natural gas for bringing the U.S. closer to energy independence for the first time in decades in his State of the Union speech earlier this year.

Obama said if extracted safely, natural gas is "the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change."

The scientists behind the study from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory disagree.

"Abundant gas may have lots of benefits — economic growth, local air pollution, energy security, and so on," McJeon said. "There's been some hope that slowing climate change could also be one of its benefits, but that turns out not to be the case."