Is Natural Gas a Detour on the Road to Cleaner Fuel?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Natural gas is often promoted as a cleaner alternative to gasoline — a kind of “bridge fuel” between emission-heavy energy sources and zero-emission renewables like solar and wind.

But a new study casts doubt on the benefits of natural gas. Researchers from the University of California-Irvine, Stanford University and the non-profit organization Near Zero studied various parings of climate policies involving natural gas and discovered that in some cases, the use of gas would actually increase emissions from the world’s power-generation sector by as much as 5 percent.

Gas got its reputation as a “bridge fuel” because it emits only half as much carbon dioxide as coal to generate the same amount of electricity. In the United States, coal generates 39 percent of the country’s electricity.

But recent studies of how natural gas is produced have looked at leaks of methane – a greenhouse gas – during the extraction process. “We were wondering: What about the effects outside of this direct coal-and-gas comparison?” said Christine Shearer, a postdoctoral scholar at UC Irvine and a co-author of a recent study.

A study published in Science found that the emissions of methane in the gas extraction process were probably 50 percent greater than previous government estimates.

Yet because gas is cheap and plentiful, it is seen as an attractive alternative to dirtier energy sources and is gaining in popularity. That’s a problem because it could slow the country’s transition to clean energy sources.

That’s why Shearer calls gas “a major detour” on the road to a lower carbon future, and says, “We find that the only effective paths to reducing greenhouse gases are a regulatory cap or a carbon tax.”

Although switching power generation from coal to natural gas still reduces greenhouse gas emissions, UC-Irvine’s Steven Davis says “cutting greenhouse gas emissions by burning natural gas is like dieting by eating reduced-fat cookies. It may be better than eating full-fat cookies, but if you really want to lose weight, you probably need to avoid cookies altogether.”

Originally written for OilPrice.com, a website that focuses on news and analysis on topics of alternative energy, geopolitics, and oil and gas. OilPrice.com is written for an educated audience that includes investors, fund managers, resource bankers, traders, and energy market professionals around the world.

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