Study: Natural Gas Expansion Will Raise Emissions, Worsen Climate

by Sarah Lazare –

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  Wellhead after all the hydraulic fracturing equipment has been taken off location. (Photo: Joshua Doubek/CC)

A national shift to natural gas for power and heat generation is no panacea for the climate crisis, new research finds.

In fact, the new study published on Wednesday by researchers from the University of California, Irvine, Stanford University, and the nonprofit organization Near Zero published in the journal Environmental Research Letters finds that treating natural gas as a so-called “bridge fuel” could actually make global warming worse by delaying an otherwise faster shift to a carbon-free, renewable energy economy.

The scientists asked natural gas experts for their estimates of natural gas supply curves, explained Dr. Christine Shearer, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California-Irvine, in a video abstract of the article. The researchers then input this data into an energy economic model to assess different future scenarios of natural gas production against varying potential climate policies, including: no climate policy, a moderate tax on carbon, and a “stringent” tax on carbon.

“We found that the increased use of natural gas for electricity will not significantly lower emissions, because gas competes not just with coal, but also with lower carbon sources of electricity such as renewables,” said Shearer. “If we want to lower emissions and decarbonize the electricity sector, our studies and others suggest we need a price or cap on carbon.”

In the video, Shearer concludes that “the biggest driver of emissions reductions” was the strength of the climate policies put in place, not the “amount of natural gas” entered into the equation.

The study adds to the growing pile of evidence against the powerful natural gas and fracking industry, which has sought to cast natural gas as a lower-carbon and climate-friendly option because its carbon footprint per unit of energy is lower than that of coal. In fact, a well-known 2011 study by researchers at Cornell University showed that emissions from fracked natural gas may be equal to or even higher than emissions from coal.

In a report released earlier this month, the non-profit Food and Water Watch warned that fracking not only destabilizes the climate but also devastates communities near fracking sites who suffer cancer and disease from water and air pollution.

Wednesday’s study came on the heels of the historic People’s Climate March in New York City, where natural gas extraction was a big concern among participating people and organizations.

The oil and gas industry is trying to use the climate crisis as a way to promote natural gas. And the Obama administration is going along with this strategy.” —Wenonah Hauter, Food and Water Watch

“So we’re here to tell the Obama administration that building a fleet of liquified natural gas facilities around the perimeter of the nation and exporting natural gas shows real hypocrisy. If we want to deal with climate change, we have to deal with the methane issue. We have to move aggressively into a renewable and efficient energy future. And we have to stop, in the public interest community, promoting natural gas as a solution. It is not a solution. The solution is to build the political will to really take on these issues.”