Sustained Outrage

During his State of the Union address last night, President Obama made a huge point of promoting natural gas, while also trying to appear concerned about any potential impacts from drilling. Here’s what he said:

We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years.  And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.  Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.  And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use.   Because America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.

The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.   And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of 30 years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock –- reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.

The president didn’t mention the recent downsizing of government estimates of the Marcellus Shale gas play, which we covered the other day here.  But perhaps more importantly, President Obama didn’t mention at all the very vigorous scientific debate over whether natural gas really improved greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal. We’ve covered that issue before here, here, here and here. And it’s worth noting that there’s been another paper published criticizing Cornell scientist Robert Howarth’s work on this issue and a reply by Howarth that vigorously defends his original conclusion:

We believe the preponderance of evidence indicates shale gas has a larger GHG footprint than conventional gas, considered over any time scale. The GHG footprint of shale gas also exceeds that of oil or coal when considered at decadal time scales, no matter how the gas is used. Considered over the century scale, and when used to generate electricity, many studies conclude that shale gas has a smaller GHG footprint than coal, although some of these studies biased their result by using a low estimate for GWP and/or low estimates for methane emission. However, the GHG footprint of shale gas is similar to that of oil or coal at the century time scale, when used for other than electricity generation. We stand by the conclusion: “The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming.”

On his must-read blog, Climate Progress, Joseph Romm recently concluded that Natural Gas Is A Bridge To Nowhere — Absent a Serious Price for Global Warming Pollution. Romm explained:

Building lots of new gas plants doesn’t make much sense since we need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next few decades if we’re to have any chance to avoid catastrophic global warming. We don’t want new gas plants to displace new renewables, like solar and wind,  which are going to be the  some of the biggest, sustainable job creating industries of the century.

Late last year, some of the leading (center-right) economists in the country — Nicholas Z. Muller, Robert Mendelsohn, and William Nordhaus — concluded in a top economic journal that the total damages from natural gas generation exceed its value-added at a low-ball carbon price of $27 per ton! At a price of $65 a ton of carbon, the total damages from natural gas are more than double its value-added!

For the record, stabilizing at 550 ppm  atmospheric concentrations of CO2, which would likely still be catastrophic for humanity, would require a price of $330 a metric ton of carbon in 2030, the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted back in 2008.

The fact that natural gas is a bridge fuel to nowhere was in fact, first demonstrated by the IEA in its big June 2011 report on gas — see IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas Scenario” Leads to More Than 6°F Warming and Out-of-Control Climate Change.  That study — which had both coal and oil consumption peaking in 2020 — made abundantly clear that if we want to avoid catastrophic warming, we need to start getting off of all fossil fuels.

Romm also explained the importance of a recent study by Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) (covered on Sustained Outrage here):

What NCAR’s new study added is more detailed modeling of all contributors to climate change from fossil fuel combustion — positive and negative.  Reducing coal use reduces sulfate aerosols that have a short-term cooling effect.  Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, so leakage throughout the natural gas production and delivery system adds to near-term warming.  And, of course, since natural gas  is a hydrocarbon, its combustion does produce CO2, albeit much less than the coal it might replace.  When you put all these factors together, here’s what you conclude:

“Relying more on natural gas would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, but it would do little to help solve the climate problem,” says Wigley, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia. “It would be many decades before it would slow down global warming at all, and even then it would just be making a difference around the edges.”

Natural gas might have been a “bridge” to a low-carbon future 30 years ago when the term was first introduced, but now its primary value would be to reduce the cost of meeting a near-term CO2 target in the U.S. in the context of a rising CO2 price.

Romm concludes:

BOTTOM LINE:  If you want to have a serious chance at averting catastrophic global warming, then we need to start phasing out all fossil fuels as soon as possible.  Natural gas isn’t a bridge fuel from a climate perspective.  Carbon-free power is the bridge fuel until we can figure out how to go carbon negative on a large scale in the second half of the century.