Study: Natural Gas Expansion Will Raise Emissions, Worsen Climate

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

In fact the study, published on Wednesday 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 the shift to carbon-free, renewable energy sources.

“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

The study was undertaken by researchers from the University of California, Irvine and Stanford University and funded by the nonprofit organization Near Zero. The scientists asked 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.”

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In the video, Shearer concludes that “the biggest driver of emissions reductions” is the strength of the climate policies put in place.


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 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, due in part to methane leaks.

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,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, told Common Dreams while marching on Sunday. “And the Obama administration is going along with this strategy.”

“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.”

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