Natural Gas and Climate Policy

Natural Gas and Climate Policy Laser Talk

Question:  Where does natural gas fit in climate policy?

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

Unlike coal, though, natural gas can leak into the air at various stages of its supply chain. When that happens, its main component – methane – is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. [3] Estimates of ‘fugitive emissions’ vary from 1.2 to 3.3 percent of natural gas consumed, [4,5] but a 2015 analysis of life-cycle emissions concluded that replacing coal-generated power with natural gas power still reduces GHG emissions by 37 to 58 percent. [6]

The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, H.R.2307, requires regulators to weigh ‘administrative burden’ against effectiveness regarding upstream emissions such as leakage, so the level of advancement in measurement technologies [7] will determine if, when, and how fugitive emissions would have a carbon fee levied on them. [8]

CCL holds that a 100 percent cut in net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as mandated by H.R.2307, 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 managed with CO2 capture and sequestration? [10] Should it be used in transportation? [11]

CCL maintains that the aggressive carbon pricing schedule of this legislation, in concert with federal regulations to cut methane leakage, will compel the energy marketplace to answer these questions in the most effective, efficient, and long-lasting way.

In a Nutshell: Natural gas is substantially less emissions-intensive than coal, but only if methane leakage is properly regulated, as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act allows. While transitioning our economy to net zero greenhouse gas emissions, the rising carbon fee in this legislation is the most effective, efficient way to answer the question of what role natural gas will play in that transition.

  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 & Engineering2:47-60 (15 May 2014).
  6. “Life-Cycle Greenhouse Gas Assessment of Coal and Natural Gas in the Power Sector.” Congressional Research Service Report R44090 (26 Jun 2015).
  7. “Methane Research Series: 16 Studies.” Environmental Defense Fund (2012-2018).
  8. Tsang, L. “EPA’s Methane Regulations: Legal Overview.” Congressional Research Service (24 Jan 2018).
  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).

This page was updated on 05/05/21 at 22:50 CDT.