Source: ZE

From controversy surrounding fracking to global production growth, natural gas continues to make headlines as it rises in the global energy mix. With many claiming natural gas as the ‘cleanest’ fossil fuel (The Guardian), recent debates examine the potential role of natural gas as the transition or ‘bridge’ fuel towards building the renewable industry through carbon mitigation.

The Bridge to Renewables

Findings from a study published last month by the University of California, Berkeley, support the notion of natural gas as the “bridge between high-carbon coal and cheap solar power,” particularly in areas with abundant sunshine. The notion of natural gas as a bridge or ‘transition’ fuel is that it will emit less carbon pollution and pave the way for renewables such as wind, solar energy, and biofuels. Government initiatives and subsidized projects show promising results of a higher capacity, with an expected cost of $1 per watt in 2020 in the U.S. (from $6 in 2003, and currently at less than $3) (Financial Post).

Technological developments like carbon capture and storage (CCS), which others could argue as costly, show promise in reducing carbon emissions. A recent report published by the U.S. Department of Energy showed suitable U.S. carbon dioxide storage areas with a total potential storage capacity to be as much as 20,000 billion metric tons (total CO2 emissions from the U.S. reach 6 to 7 billion metric tons per year) (Huffington Post). (To read more about carbon capture, see our Canada’s Carbon Capture and Storage Solution blog here.)

According to data from EPA, carbon emissions from the U.S. are gradually decreasing over the years, as seen in Figure 1 below, which may indicate a general trend of declining emissions in the future. A major contributing factor is the production of natural gas, instead of coal (WSJ).


Figure 1: CO2 Emissions Trend in the U.S. from 2000-2012 from EPA. (Graph Created with ZEMA)

As renewables continue to experience decreases in costs, advancements in energy capacity and supporting infrastructure, and – most importantly – a drop in carbon emissions, cleaner alternatives may be increasingly viable.

The ‘Cleanest’ Fossil Fuel

Natural gas is claimed to be the ‘cleanest’ fossil fuel because it is less carbon-intensive than coal or oil and, when burned, emits “half as much carbon as coal does for each unit of energy produced” (Earth Policy Institute). In comparison, coal and oil also emit sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and mercury. President Obama himself proposed natural gas as a cleaner “transition” fuel in his recent Climate Action Plan (Forbes). (To keep reading about Coal, check out our The Future Cost of Solar Power to Rival Coal blog.)

However, others have questioned this claim, including the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), who argues that “using more natural gas for fuel could also produce leaks of methane, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.” As an example, current LNG projects like the development of major LNG gas plants in northern B.C., Canada, could “increase greenhouse gas emissions by 62 million tonnes per year,” including GHGs emitted from the plants and natural gas extraction and processing (Vancouver Sun).

The extent to which shale gas production emits methane remains unclear to scientists. “Emissions factors for shale gas and LNG remain poorly characterized and contested in the academic literature, and context-specific factors have significant impacts on the lifecycle emissions of shale gas but have not been evaluated” (ScienceDirect). Additionally, new gas-fired power plants have been built to last decades, which may force the continued use of fossil fuels (Financial Post).

Perhaps the next step is to determine precisely how ‘clean’ natural gas may be and to pay close attention to other factors that may have been overlooked, such as the complete production lifecycle.

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