The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions recently released a new report detailing how to incorporate natural gas into an emissions- and carbon-free future, with recommendations for use by sector. They launched their report with a meeting featuring a “CEO-level” discussion and a “sector-level” discussion.
The two panels followed the format of the report. The first featured a discussion of how natural gas fits into broad plans for carbon reduction, energy security, and grid reliability. They addressed the need to continue to incorporate renewable sources like wind and solar into diverse energy portfolios, saying natural gas could help support renewables until there is more innovation in terms of renewable energy storage. They also brought up the need for the market to play out, and that carbon taxes may be a way to address externalities between hydrocarbon energy and renewables. Another key point was how effectively the emissions market worked in regards to NOx and SOx pollution.
The second panel was a sector-specific discussion about how to incorporate and account for natural gas. The most revealing portion was a candid question about whether natural gas prices should be higher or lower, given the conflict between production/supply and consumer demand. After some dodging, the panel agreed that the $4-6 or $5-7 range would be best, and that a consistent range is more advantageous than a high and volatile price.
So exactly how green is natural gas? Well, the report was prudent in only discussing “end use” – how the gas is used one it has been extracted – thus bypassing the increasing controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing. The report drew three main conclusions. First, natural gas can help reduce emissions which are expected to rise back to 2005 levels a little after 2040. Second, natural gas must be used with renewables and other low-carbon investments. And third, the entire natural gas value chain should be evaluated to reduce emissions as much as possible. That said, because natural gas burns cleaner than either coal or petroleum, it has great potential as what panelists called a “bridge” toward a carbon-free future. But exactly how long or how stable is this bridge?
Despite industry optimism, we should not use natural gas supply to set the length of the bridge, but rather consider the new abundance a second chance to make serious efforts to address climate change. The bridge’s length should instead be determined by how long it would take for us to return to 2005 emission levels. If we merely make the switch to gas, this will happen around 2040. However, incorporating low-carbon efforts like renewables and carbon taxes can help us extend the life of our existing energy resources. If we wait until 2040 to think about the next step, we will likely find it too late to build a new bridge.
By establishing a clear regulatory scheme as quickly as possible, we can help support industries that want to make the switch to gas or renewables, and ensure that the bridge is stable. A diverse energy portfolio will also help to stabilize the bridge against the possible price volatility of natural gas and other energy commodities. Renewables have a more stable fuel price that does not depend on the global market and can help make the path to energy independence more secure.
It would seem that some are only hoping for a bridge to the next energy boom. They point to the naysayers of our current boom who appear to be stuck in a mental state of energy scarcity rather than abundance. However, unless these optimists are hiding away their perpetual motion machine to be unveiled at the most opportune moment, such lack of foresight and unwillingness to address real and present threats amounts to nothing more than a bridge to nowhere.