Game changer 7: Tim Wirth and John Podesta on Natural Gas, A Bridge Fuel for the 21st Century

Previous posts in this series (see links below) have focused on how the unconventional natural gas opportunity changes the game for low-cost climate action.  This post, by former Senator Tim Wirth and CAP CEO John Podesta, first published here, offers a variety of proposals for tapping this new resource in an environmentally responsible manner.


Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel””it produces less than half as much carbon pollution as coal. Recent technology advancements make affordable the development of unconventional natural gas resources. This creates an unprecedented opportunity to use gas as a bridge fuel to a 21st-century energy economy that relies on efficiency, renewable sources, and low-carbon fossil fuels such as natural gas.

Despite the potential energy, economic, and security benefits of natural gas, the recently House-passed American Clean Energy and Security Act, H.R. 2454, does not include enough opportunities to expand its use. The Center for American Progress and the Energy Future Coalition therefore propose a number of policies that would increase the use of natural gas and low-carbon energy sources while providing additional protection for our climate and communities.


  • Establish incentives to retire aging, inefficient, dirty coal-fired power plants, and replace them with renewable and low-carbon electricity.
  • Create a renewables integration credit to offset specific costs associated with producing high levels of renewable energy and to reward going beyond the renewable electricity standard.
  • Establish a dedicated incentive for development and deployment of “dispatchable” renewable energy to build markets for electricity storage technology.
  • Require that the carbon price and other costs are included when determining the dispatch order for moving electricity onto the grid to prioritize natural gas and other clean electricity.
  • Expand carbon capture-and-storage provisions to include other permanent storage technologies in addition to geologic sequestration. Ensure that carbon capture and storage research and deployment efforts include retrofitting existing coal- and gas-fired power plants.
  • Remove regulatory barriers to recycling waste heat and power.


  • Expand the market for natural gas as a heavy-duty transportation fuel by increasing incentives for gas-powered buses and heavy trucks.
  • Create incentives for communities to develop bus rapid transit systems that employ buses fueled by natural gas.

Clean natural gas development

  • Conduct a comprehensive analysis of the impact of natural gas production on air, water, land, and global warming. Include a compilation of best practices and recommendations for new state safeguards.
  • Support public disclosure requirements on the release of toxic chemicals used during the production of natural gas.
  • Expand the Natural Gas STAR program where natural gas producers voluntarily capture and resell methane””a potent greenhouse gas””instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Current participants make money on these methane sales. Medium and large emitters must undertake this practice.


  • Conduct research on more efficient turbines, storage of renewable electricity, and other technologies that would generate no- or low-carbon energy.

Download the full memo (pdf)

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14 Responses to Game changer 7: Tim Wirth and John Podesta on Natural Gas, A Bridge Fuel for the 21st Century

  1. robert says:

    I’ve been following the posts on this topic. I have to say, I think CP is way off base on this one. I see three big negatives:

    1. NG is a nonrenewable fossil.
    2. Tapping the “vast” reserves being discussed involves horrendous environmental impact, particularly to water supplies. We can ‘study’ environmentally low-impact extraction all we want. But it’s akin to clean coal.
    3. We. Don’t. Need it. We have the technological and economic capability to leap-frog this resource. Myriad studies indicate this. Further, investment in NG will almost certainly slow renewables development. It’s externalities, which are substantial, will not be a part of the pricing, delaying solar, wind and geothermal.

    NG is a big fat loser in my book.
    [JR: 1 — so what. It’s a bridge fuel. 2 — Not what the industry experts I trust tell me. Clean coal analogy doesn’t work because the GHG reduction is there. 3 — I agree we could do without the natural gas, but it enables renewables and replaces coal and keeps carbon costs low in the near term — UNDER a climate bill.]

  2. pete best says:

    Its great but does it help the rest of the world reduce its increasing fossil fuel usage?

    [JR: If we don’t, no one else will. Also, many other countries have shale gas, including China.]

  3. pete best says:

    I agree with that assessment but what come after natural gas for I am supposing that it is intended to meet peak demand needs when renewables can’t? Baseload and peak even ?

  4. Jeff Huggins says:

    [JR: Welcome — you should read the earlier parts. The point of a multi-part series is so I don’t have to put everything in one post. You’ll see many of these answered. Start with Part 2.]

    Same Concerns, But Willing to Listen If All Arguments are Addressed

    I have some of the same concerns that Robert expresses and that folks have expressed in earlier threads on this topic. Gas is not renewable, for the most part, so we would be just getting ourselves into a situation that will require another transition.

    And, Robert’s question is a very good one: What would this sort of transition mean to our credibility and ability to motivate (and help) other countries to dramatically reduce their CO2 emissions? If the standard of living (and thus energy use) in other huge countries continues to increase as anticipated, and if all they’ve done is convert from coal to gas in many cases, they’ll still end up with huge and ultimately growing carbon footprints. How are we going to encourage and help them convert to solar, wind, geothermal, and etc., if all we’ve done is transition to gas? The credibility and technology-development aspects of the equation are HUGE factors, perhaps more important than nearly all else.

    And, I’d like to see concrete numbers here. Let’s avoid the problems that (usually) stories in the MSM have, such as a near absence of key numbers.

    For example, according to these trusted sources you mention, and to CP, what are the relevant “efficiencies” of the coal plants that will actually be displaced by this use of gas? In other words, for those plants or types of plants, how much CO2 is produced per kW-hr of electricity generated? I’m looking for real numbers, that genuinely represent the types of plants that will be displaced, and that represent enough of those plants to result in the sorts of “large impact” that seem to be anticipated. Then, what are the comparable numbers (CO2 produced per kW-hr of electricity generated) for the gas plants that will (presumably) replace those coal plants? Are we talking about running the new gas through pre-existing old, and underutilized, gas plants? If so, they’ll still create a lot of CO2. Or, are we talking about running the new gas through pre-existing but modern plants, i.e., the most modern plants that already exist (are already built) today? If so, the efficiencies will be better, but aren’t those most-modern plants already being well-utilized, for the most part? Or, are we talking about the need to build, from scratch, modern gas plants to convert these new gas sources into electricity? If so, we could be spending that same amount of capital investment on solar fields, wind farms, geothermal fields, energy storage facilities, and so forth. Right? What is the actual argument for spending huge amounts of money to build NEW gas plants when we could be building solar plants and wind farms instead, and when we don’t have to pay the sun or wind for their services, like we have to pay whoever owns the gas?

    It might “seem” like these are lots of questions, but they are very real questions, essential, and should be easy for anyone to answer (your trusted sources, or anyone who has done a thorough analysis). Really, some of the central questions amount to this:

    * CO2 produced per kW-hr of electricity generated for the specific coal plants (or types of coal plants) that will be displaced?

    * CO2 produced per kW-hr of electricity generated for the specific gas plants (or types of gas plants) that will be used to displace the coal plants and perhaps generate power beyond that level?

    * The volume (of energy generated) that can reasonably be expected to shift from the coal plants to the gas plants, consistent with the efficiencies mentioned above?

    * The investment cost of the new gas plants that will be necessary to make this happen, keeping in mind that you can’t generate electricity from gas (at a certain level of CO2/kW-hr, especially) without gas plants to do so (plants that can actually achieve that level of CO2/kW-hr being claimed)?

    Of course, there are other factors as well. e.g., the other environmental factors. But, the figures above are basic, and central, figures to understand the magnitude of the central benefit (being claimed) and idea. So, can CP, in conjunction with the trusted sources, supply us with these simple, specific numbers, wrapped into some brief text to help us make sure we know where they are coming from and that they are internally consistent with each other? And, can we also examine and address the other questions, such as what this gas transition would do to our ability/credibility to encourage and help other countries reduce CO2 emissions? And/or, how much of this notion has to do with someone’s view of political possibility and expediency?

    I’m “open” to better understanding this notion, but I’d need to see numbers, and hear specifics, first. Has McKinsey done a thorough analysis of this? Black & Vaetch? (spelling?) Other major and relevant engineering firm? Indeed, WHO has done a credible comprehensive analysis of this whole idea, with the specifics, and where can we see that study?

    (Sorry if I’m asking for something already provided: i’m relatively new here.)



  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    One Question That Should Be Answerable

    Adding to my recent comment, it would help to have the answer to one specific question that should be easy to answer given the original post.

    The post itself begins with the point that “it [natural gas] produces less than half as much carbon pollution as coal”. And, the entire context of the post has to do with the notion of using some sorts of gas plants (presumably somewhat modern ones) to generate electricity while shutting down many coal plants (presumably some of the less efficient ones).

    So, given that a comparison (i.e., “less than half”) is being mentioned here, can CP and the sources mention the specific, and representative, figure for CO2 produced (per kW-hr) from the sort of coal plants involved in the comparison, AND (in comparison) the specific and representative figure for CO2 produced (per kW-hr) for the sort of gas plants envisioned? In other words, what are the two figures that go into the “less than half” comparison?

    Also, it would be helpful to have a short amount of descriptive text describing, or identifying, the sort of coal plant and the sort of gas plant that correspond to those figures, so we can understand what we’re dealing with. For example, the coal plant might be an “old, 1950s-era, blah blah blah plant utilizing some basic blah blah technology”, while the gas plant might be a “state of the art, combined-cycle blah blah blah grassroots plant, newly constructed”. Or, whatever is the case. The idea, of course, is that the figures used should correspond to, and reflect, the sort of coal plant that will be (we assume) shut down, as well as the sort of gas plant that will be (we assume) used to generate the power instead.

    I’m interested to see what those numbers, and those sorts of plants, are, that result in the “less than half” figure. That will help me understand the idea and context better.

    (After vacation of course!)



  6. Olinto says:

    Joe, in the EIA analysis of Waxman-Markey that just came out last week (, natural gas does not do well in all but one scenario (where CCS/nuclear are not viable and availability of offsets is limited). In all the other scenarios, electricity generation from NG is down in 2020 relative to 2007.

    Is this due to poor modeling–or outdated assumptions about NG supply/prices? How do you reconcile the EIA report with your NG series?

    Also, is there a game changer #7?

    [JR: EIA is dreadful at NG analysis, and efficiency and renewables — hence the $32 a ton price for CO2 in 2020, probably twice the likely price. But there IS a lot of efficiency in the bill. I’ll do another post when I get back.]

  7. We are the ones who are following on natural gas. GM already sells CNG cars in Europe and other parts of the world. Iran and Venezuela are already on their way to converting to natural gas as their primary transportation fuel. India is also following this past with the twist that they are introducing hydrogen (up to 20%) into the CNG stream in order to make it even cleaner. In addition this creates a huge retail market for hydrogen without having to build a new infrastructure. See my previous blogs on the subject of hydrogen being the perfect bridge fuel to a hydrogen economy:

    Is hydrogen the best of the green fuels?:

    Natural Gas Fuel; A Bridge To…What?:

    What so many people who plan the future seem to forget to do is include human nature in their calculations. Consumers will be happy to support clean energy right up until the time comes to pay the bill. If it costs more or asks them to make sacrifices in terms of comfort or convenience forget it, it won’t work no matter how good it looks on paper.

    For all of those reasons and others, including energy independence/national security I feel that the natural gas bridge/transition is the only logical one based on the choices we have and on what consumers will most readily accept.

  8. Matt says:

    It is hard to see wind and solar making a significant dent in CO2 emissions in the next ten years. That’s because to the extent that we get 10 or 20% RE penetration by 2020 it will mostly displace NG and not coal. Energy efficiency can have a big impact but it is hard to see how you can get a 20% CO2 reduction by 2020 just EE. That’s why nukes and coal with CCS keep popping up.

    Gas offers a path that truly is a bridge fuel – getting us to the mid 2020’s without the corresponding half century of sunk infrastructure investments that come with Nukes and CCS (assuming CCS works.) The problem with gas has been price / supply volatility. We thought gas would be the bridge fuel in the 90’s and got burned in 2000. That is why the new extraction technologies/supplies are exciting.

    I agree the questions above need to be answered – especially quantifying the supply and adopting best environmental extraction practices. But gas fuel switching can be an energy and political bridge to significant carbon reduction. It buys us ten years to solve the renewable intermittancy issue, while we deploy and integrate large scale RE. Today RE needs gas and only jurisdictions with large gas portfolios can accommodate wind.

  9. My comment does not pertain direcly to the subject of this post, but I would like to point out that there are at least two basic ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

    1. Reduce emissions directly by using clean energy or by using fossil energy more efficiently; and 2. Reduce the number of people emitting the emissions.

    Although Climate Progress does a fabulous job in educating us about point one, I am struck by the relative lack of attention given to population control in the literature concerning global warming.

    With the world’s population expected to increase by roughly 50% by the end of this century, it seems to me we should be mounting a crash program by passing out free condoms and birth control pills, educating people on the hazards of over population, etc.

    Are there previous posts on population control I have missed?

    [JR: Yes. Try search engine.]

  10. John Redford says:

    NG releases a lot less CO2 per kW-h, but is a much worse greenhouse gas in and of itself. If it gets used more heavily, won’t there be a lot more leaks of methane into the atmosphere? I’m sure that the natural gas distributors keep statistics on this. How does the extra warming caused by leaks compare to the lessening of warming caused by less CO2 emission?

    [JR: I don’t expect it will be “used more heavily” thanks to efficiency. I have posted life-cycle links previously, will do another post on all this when I get back.]

  11. Jay Turner says:

    After natural gas is
    1) demand management (smart grid)
    2) methane recovery (cow power, landfill gas, industrial byproduct, etc.)
    3) electric storage (batteries, vehicle to grid, flywheels, hydro)
    4) biomass, biofuels, geothermal and any other dispatchable renewables.
    It will take time to develop these to useful levels–something natural gas as a bridge might buy for us.

  12. Matania Ginosar D. Env. says:

    Thank you Joe for the good work you do for all of us supplying so much useful information on a daily basis.I also agree with most of your analysis and conclusions since they are logical and based on cost-effective, practical approach.
    Regarding the natural gas article, few points seem significant, first, the critical issue is not that gas is fossil fuel, but that it can cut the emission of GHG very fast to only one third of coal. It is critical to cut GHG emissions as soon as possible to reduce the likelihood of reaching any of the potential tipping points. The emission of GHG by natural gas combined cycle, NGCC, is one third of coal plants because the efficiency of NGCC is typically 45% vs. 30% for most existing coal plants.
    However, NGCC in combination with wind energy can supply base load since NGCC plants can be adjusted very fast to changing demand. Coal can not.
    But, the significance of finding the new gas is low, the increase of proven reserves is just 13%. This is an insignificant increase.
    Another point, we do not use all the current natural gas plants available to full capacity since the industry rather produce low cost electricity, not low-GHG electricity. Profit is their main, possibly sole aim.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Jeff Huggins: All of those numbers are in “Power to Save the World” by Gwyneth Cravens.

  14. Ethan Winn says:

    The fact that the only post in this series that substantially addresses the environmental concerns raised by unconventional gas extraction consists primarily of a paraphrased memo in the form of bullet points is disturbing. Where is the discussion of clean extraction technologies? How are life-cycle assessments of conventional gas extraction (such as those quoted by the author in responses earlier comments) relevant to hydrofracturing?

    And finally, how can a discussion of environmental and regulatory concerns of unconventional drilling fail to include any mention of the exemption of Gas and Oil operations under the 2005 climate bill and the FRAC Act currently proposed in both the House and the Senate?

    The lynchpin in arguments for the environmental safety of Natural Gas extraction can be seen at the end of the extended RFK Jr. quote earlier in this series: the need for proper regulation. Yet I’ve see no substantial regulatory practices or policies covered in this list or in earlier posts. It’s as if comprehensive, meaningful regulation could be tacked on as an afterthought. I’d think that different regulatory models may impact the economics of unconventional gas a bit, at the least.

    I’m no expert (just a concerned citizen living amidst the Marcellus Shale), and I am sensitive to the tensions between global warming, economics, natural resource protection and just governance/comprehensive regulation. But when discussions of this issue leave out major aspects of the story, optimistically extrapolate from inconclusive data and fail to take the regulation issue seriously, my trust is shaken.

    Finally, an afterthought: it seems the gas lobby is very good at lobbying for reduced regulation and strict limits on local government oversight, despite all the reports of their inability to organize around meaningful climate legislation. Kind of makes you wonder where their priorities lie, actually…