Natural Gas Won’t Decrease Our Carbon Footprint

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Fracking A Closer Look
A rig drills for natural gas that will eventually be released using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on leased private property outside Rifle, in western Colorado. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Shale gas proponents argue that it’s clean, cheap and abundantly available here at home — three benefits no other single fossil fuel shares. But a new report from Stanford’s Energy Modeling Forum finds that burning more natural gas wouldn’t do much to decrease North America’s carbon footprint.

Some energy market watchers, including US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, say natural gas is a “bridge fuel” between dirtier fossil fuels like coal and oil, and cleaner, renewable sources of energy like wind and solar. But the Stanford study finds that natural gas would not actually deliver us across the “bridge” to a greener energy future: Having made coal less economical already, cheap shale gas will also keep renewables from capturing more of the market. Tax credits encouraging investment in wind farms and other sources of renewable energy will also likely expire at the end of this year, suppressing sustainable development further. With more shale gas production, where we are now, in terms of emissions, is where we’ll stay.

Light blue bars show a scenario in which shale production is low.

This figure shows ten models for how increased production of shale gas will affect North American emissions. Light blue bars show a scenario in which shale production is low. Dark blue bars show a scenario in which shale production is high. Green bars show a scenario in which politicians implement some sort of carbon tax in 2013 that costs at most $25 per tonne of CO2 in 2013 but increases incrementally to $75 per tonne in 2035.

Natural gas is less dirty than coal, but it’s still a carbon-based fuel, and the cheaper it is, the more of it we’ll use. According to the report, natural gas is so cheap that it beats out both fossil fuels and increasingly popular renewable alternatives.

The report’s authors continue:

Another contributor to the modest emissions impact is the somewhat higher economic growth that stimulates more emissions. Reinforcing this trend is the greater fuel and power consumption resulting from lower natural gas and electricity prices.

The report also notes that while natural gas will stimulate our domestic economy, it won’t have the same robust effect its proponents hope for. The Stanford experts predict it will add about $70 billion — “Although this amount appears large,” they write, “it represents a relatively modest 0.46 percent of the US economy.”

John Light is a writer and journalist sometimes based in New York. He writes a lot about climate policy, both inside and outside of the US. He was a former associate digital producer for Moyers & Company. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, and has been included in ProPublica's #MuckReads collection. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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  • pnclement

    Natural gas is cleaner burning, but that’s the whole point — burning! Even Nuclear energy, where there is no fuel being burned to produce an emission, isn’t really a “clean” fuel. Think of all of the fossil fuel burned to excavate and process the uranium out of the ore to get nuclear fuel, and then there is the waste left over in nearly every step — not to speak of the left over used-spend fuel rods witch are highly toxic and radio-active for thousands of years.

    Fracking and natural gas are only temporary solutions to burning coal.

    No, the only solution is not to be burning anything. Instead, we need to use solar energy — the only safe nuclear reactor is the one located 93 million miles from earth — and wind, Geo-thermal, Bio-mass and hydro-electric.

  • Anonymous

    Keep in mind how much of something has to be combusted to produce materials for solar panels & convert them into working panels. There are no free rides but we should always be looking to do better.

    Our solar panels dropped net household use by 22% on average. Having a house half backed into a hill helps. Insulation & insulating windows improves some. Each thing contributes.

  • pnclement

    Everything is related or connected to everything else; growing corn with which to make into ethanol, requires huge amounts of fertilizer made from petrol-chemicals or oil. The same as making solar panels requires use of some fossil fuels. However, one made, solar panel produce totally free and zero emissions! Hardly a negative any way you look at it…. unless you are an oil or coal company. The key is to take a small amount of a finite resource — coal/oil — and make something that will essentially be free and non-polluting energy. If the coal and oul companies were smart, they would have been investing into wind, solar and biomass energy. Instead, they are on a crash course to produce more coal by mountain top mining — where the entire top of a mountain is blasted away to reveal the coal underneath — polluting clear mountain streams and killing off all the wildlife therein. And oil companies are more than eager to poison the water table by fracking the rock formations that contain deposits of natural gas. There is no reason, no excuses, for us and the world not to start converting to sustainable energy resources…. other than pure greed.

  • NigelMatip

    my father in-law just got BMW 3 Series Coupe only from working part time off a pc… this

  • NigelMatip