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Missing the Point on Natural Gas as a Bridge Fuel

by Michael Levi
March 2, 2012


Hardly a month seems to go by without another study that’s touted as showing that natural gas is a dead end when it comes to climate change. First there was the International Energy Agency’s “Golden Age of Gas”, which foresaw global temperatures rising by as much as five degrees centigrade.  Then there was a paper by Tom Wigley in Climatic Change Letters that was released under the banner “Switching From Coal To Gas Would Do Little For Global Climate”. The latest entry in the genre is a paper out a couple weeks ago in Environmental Research Letters, whose abstract concludes: “Conservation, wind, solar, nuclear power, and possibly carbon capture and storage appear to be able to achieve substantial climate benefits in the second half of this century; however, natural gas cannot.” One prominent climate blogger interpreted that bluntly: “Natural gas is a bridge fuel to nowhere”.

So I’ll forgive you if what I’m about to say comes as a surprise: None of these studies look at natural gas as a bridge fuel.

That’s right: Zero. Not a single one. Every one of them boosts natural gas relative to business as usual. That’s the first part of a bridge. But none of them ever phase it out – an element that’s equally integral to the bridge idea.

It turns out that if you continue to use natural gas forever, things don’t turn out very well. But that isn’t news, or at least it shouldn’t be to the intelligent folks who keep hyping the new studies.

To really understand the potential impact of natural gas as a bridge fuel, you need to look at scenarios where – this will shock you – it’s a bridge fuel. I have a paper in the works that does just that. I can’t share the results right now, but I will say that some of them surprised me. More on that to come.

P.S. I have an article out today in Foreign Policy, “The Driller In Chief”, which defends President Obama against baseless claims that he’s out to destroy oil and gas. Take a look.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Raindog

    Right on. I have noticed the same thing. The title “Natural gas is a bridge fuel to nowhere” rightly captures the papers because the bridge and the place it goes are the same (and therefore it is not a bridge). Of course that was not Romm’s point with the title – with him it is always more about being against oil companies than it is about doing something about climate change. He commonly has posts complaining about high gas prices when there is very little that does more to promote conservation and lower emissions than high prices.

  • Posted by Tom Parrett

    One welcomes Mr. Levi’s impulse to fill in the picture. All too often in discussions about our energy future, big chunks are left out. Burning natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels, largely because it is a simpler molecule, CH4. But it still produces carbon dioxide, which renewables and nuclear do not.

    That NG will be phased out — is that a strategy or a necessity? After all, thermogenic natural-gas reserves are finite and biogenic production a fraction of today’s consumption.

    I look forward to Mr. Levi’s new paper and will attend it with great interest.

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