A new report from the Center for American Progress finds that the practice of using natural gas for electricity generation must peak before 2030 in order to ensure climate stabilization.
CAP argues that there are benefits to increasing the use of natural gas in the short term. Because natural gas is currently cheap, it both displaces coal (which yields environmental benefits) and lowers electricity prices.
However, there are also very real risks. Methane is a high-powered global warming pollutant, trapping 72 times as much heat as CO2 over a twenty-year period. Extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing poses risks to both groundwater and the sustainability of local communities. Finally, long-term dependence on natural gas slams the window for climate stabilization shut; the locked-in emissions would cause the United States to blow past its 2030 and 2050 emissions goals.
Therefore, in order to meet climate stabilization targets, the report offers four necessary goals for gas:
- Natural gas use must peak in the next seven to seventeen years
- Extraction must be managed in an environmentally sustainable way
- Revenues from natural gas should be dedicated to renewable energy development and deployment, as well as creating more resilient communities
- Measures should be adopted that protect the middle class from price fluctuations if LNG exports move ahead
Another point to note is that the inertia from expanding natural gas use will be difficult to curtail. Although some additional natural gas use would come from increasing capacity factors of existing plants, expanding natural gas on a large scale would require building swaths of new infrastructure. This new infrastructure, funded by ratepayers, has a useful life that would have to be cut short to meet climate goals. In this sense, even the business-as-usual path creates serious headwinds for climate advocates, as planned natural gas additions and retirements over the next 30 years already lock in enough emissions to exceed climate targets. Significantly increasing capacity over projections will only exacerbate this trend.
To ensure that the transition away from natural gas is swift and that extraction is done in an environmentally sustainable way, CAP recommends several policies, including federal pollution standards, national regulation of fracking, a phase-out of coal, and a national clean energy standard, as well as being wary of capacity overbuild. CAP also floats ideas for generating revenue from the natural gas boom, such as increasing the market rates for extraction on public lands, levying fees on natural gas at various points in the lifecycle, and developing a significant carbon price.
The report expresses caution about exports of liquefied natural gas. Noting the price increases from high volumes of exports and the wealth transfer from the middle class to producers and holders of natural gas stocks, the organization recommends carefully monitoring exports and possibly imposing a fee to offset domestic economic harms.
The report is representative of a growing view that a natural gas “bridge” is likely to be a reality, but that natural gas cannot constitute a long-term strategy for climate stabilization.
Editor's note: Adam James formerly worked at the Center for American Progress and worked on developing the natural gas report.
Adam James is a Solar Analyst with GTM Research focused on downstream global markets. You can reach him at James@GTMResearch.com or follow him on Twitter @adam_s_james.