Natural Gas and Climate Policy

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This page was updated on 05/21/18 15:27 CDT.

Question:  Where does natural gas fit in climate policy?

Answer: Natural gas produces fossil-based CO2, but significantly less than coal or oil for the same amount of energy produced. [1] When burned for electricity, that advantage widens because modern natural gas power plants are much more efficient than coal plants. [2]

Unlike coal, though, natural gas can leak into the air. When that happens, its main component – methane – is a greenhouse gas with a potency 28 to 36 times that of CO2 over a 100-year period. [3] Life-cycle leakage estimates vary widely, from 1.2 to 3.3 percent [4,5] but an in-depth 2017 analysis of  available literature concluded that replacing coal-generated power with state-of-the-art natural gas power reduces GHG emissions by about 45 percent. [6]

Methane leakage can be greatly reduced by methods spelled out under still-active EPA regulations. [7] CCL’s policy seeks to cover all greenhouse gas emissions. However, during the legislative process, we would of course be open to existing regulations or other approaches that ensure industrial methane emissions are adequately addressed. [8]

CCL holds that a 90 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is necessary to achieve a livable future. How long can natural gas remain in the mix and still meet this target? Should it serve as backup for intermittent renewables like wind and solar? [9] Can it be safely combined with CO2 capture and sequestration? [10] Should it be used in transportation? [11]

Those decisions are not up to CCL. As long as all of the climate costs are adequately priced into the energy we use, as our plan stipulates, the best long-term engineering solutions will win out.

  1. “Emissions Factors for Greenhouse Gas Inventories.” U.S. EPA (4 Apr 2014).
  2. “What is the efficiency of different types of power plants?” U.S. Energy Information Administration (10 May 2017).
  3. “Understanding Global Warming Potentials.” U.S. EPA (accessed 24 Apr 2018).
  4. “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2016: Executive Summary.” U.S. EPA (12 Apr 2018).
  5. Howarth, R.W. “A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas.” Editorial in Energy Science & Engineering 2:47-60 (22 Apr 2014).
  6. Scull, B. D., et al. “Upstream Emissions of Coal and Gas.” New York, NY: Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs, p. 3 (24 May 2017).
  7. Tsang, L. “EPA’s Methane Regulations: Legal Overview.” Congressional Research Service (24 Jan 2018).
  8. Munnings, C. and A.J. Krupnick. “Comparing Policies to Reduce Methane Emissions in the Natural Gas Sector.”
  9. Kraft, A. “How Competition of Renewables vs. Gas is Evolving.” PointLogic Energy (30 Aug 2017).
  10. McMahon, J. “Too Good To Be True? Carbon Capture ‘Game Changer’ Raises Hopes And Questions.” Forbes (16 Jan 2018).
  11. “Natural Gas Vehicles.” U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center (18 Apr 2017).

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