Natural Gas Is A Bridge To Nowhere — Absent a Serious Price for Global Warming Pollution

President of American Gas Association, 1981:  “In fact, gas energy — currently America’s largest domestically produced fuel — could prove to be the keystone to solving the nation’s energy crisis by serving as the ‘bridge fuel’ to the next century’s renewable energy technologies.”

VP of AGA, 1988, “refers to natural gas as a bridge fuel — the least harmful alternative while the world looks for other, longer-lasting solutions to the ‘greenhouse’ effect,” the Washington Post reported.

Chair of AGA, 2008:  “Natural gas will be the bridge fuel to the future…. The electric industry is expected to turn to natural gas as a bridge until clean coal and nuclear generation are available.”

It’s the longest bridge in history!  Heck, the Golden Gate Bridge only took 4 years to build!

The President will be touting natural gas in his State of the Union address tonight, according to sources.  Nothing wrong with touting gas — if you also tout a rising carbon price, which the president once did but no longer does.

Way back in June 2009, I pointed out the value of gas in the context of a climate bill with a rising CO2 price — see “Why unconventional natural gas makes the 2020 Waxman-Markey target so damn easy and cheap to meet.”  But the key point of that post was that you could put gas in existing, underutilized plants to replace existing coal power cheaply to meet the key 2020 target Obama.

Building lots of new gas plants doesn’t make much sense since we need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next few decades if we’re to have any chance to avoid catastrophic global warming. We don’t want new gas plants to displace new renewables, like solar and wind,  which are going to be the  some of the biggest, sustainable job creating industries of the century.

Late last year, some of the leading (center-right) economists in the country — Nicholas Z. Muller, Robert Mendelsohn, and William Nordhaus — concluded in a top economic journal that the total damages from natural gas generation exceed its value-added at a low-ball carbon price of $27 per ton! At a price of $65 a ton of carbon, the total damages from natural gas are more than double its value-added!

For the record, stabilizing at 550 ppm  atmospheric concentrations of CO2, which would likely still be catastrophic for humanity, would require a price of $330 a metric ton of carbon in 2030, the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted back in 2008.

The fact that natural gas is a bridge fuel to nowhere was in fact, first demonstrated by the IEA in its big June 2011 report on gas — see IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas Scenario” Leads to More Than 6°F Warming and Out-of-Control Climate Change.  That study — which had both coal and oil consumption peaking in 2020 — made abundantly clear that if we want to avoid catastrophic warming, we need to start getting off of all fossil fuels.

Then came a remarkable new study by Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that concluded:

In summary, our results show that the substitution of gas for coal as an energy source results in increased rather than decreased global warming for many decades.

Here was the key figure:

Coal, natural gas, and climate: Shifting from coal to natural gas would have limited impacts on climate, new research indicates. If methane leaks from natural gas operations could be kept to 2.5% or less, the increase in global temperatures would be reduced by about 0.1 degree Celsius by 2100.  Note: This is a figure of temperature change relative to baseline warming of roughly 3°C (5.4°F) in 2100 (or nearly  7°F warming  compared to preindustrial levels).  Click to Enlarge.

What NCAR’s new study added is more detailed modeling of all contributors to climate change from fossil fuel combustion — positive and negative.  Reducing coal use reduces sulfate aerosols that have a short-term cooling effect.  Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, so leakage throughout the natural gas production and delivery system adds to near-term warming.  And, of course, since natural gas  is a hydrocarbon, its combustion does produce CO2, albeit much less than the coal it might replace.  When you put all these factors together, here’s what you conclude:

“Relying more on natural gas would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, but it would do little to help solve the climate problem,” says Wigley, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia. “It would be many decades before it would slow down global warming at all, and even then it would just be making a difference around the edges.”

Natural gas might have been a “bridge” to a low-carbon future 30 years ago when the term was first introduced, but now its primary value would be to reduce the cost of meeting a near-term CO2 target in the U.S. in the context of a rising CO2 price.

A key finding of the NCAR study is:

The most important result, however, in accord with the above authors, is that, unless leakage rates for new methane can be kept below 2%, substituting gas for coal is not an effective means for reducing the magnitude of future climate change.

The question of what the total leakage rate is remains hotly contested, but I know of no analysis that finds a rate below 2% including one by the National Energy Technology Laboratory, the DOE’s premier fossil fuel lab.

BOTTOM LINE:  If you want to have a serious chance at averting catastrophic global warming, then we need to start phasing out all fossil fuels as soon as possible.  Natural gas isn’t a bridge fuel from a climate perspective.  Carbon-free power is the bridge fuel until we can figure out how to go carbon negative on a large scale in the second half of the century.

ADDENDUM:  The 1988 Washington Post article, “Natural Gas, Nuclear Backers See Opportunity in ‘Greenhouse’ Concern” cited above quoting the VP of the American Gas Association contains this paragraph:

All told, worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide more than tripled from 1950 to 1980. If the trend continues, by the year 2030, temperatures could be warm enough to melt ocean-borne ice, raise sea levels, and radically change growing conditions for the world’s food supply.

Oops.  Only missed by 20 years.

Let me end by pointing out another NCAR study, “Drought under global warming” (see here).  That study makes clear that Dust-Bowlification may be the impact of human-caused climate change that hits the most people by mid-century, as the figure below suggests (click to enlarge, “a reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought”):

drought map 3 2060-2069

The PDSI [Palmer Drought Severity Index] in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl apparently spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade(see here).

The large-scale pattern shown in Figure 11 [of which the figure above is part] appears to be a robust response to increased GHGs. This is very alarming because if the drying is anything resembling Figure 11a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States, southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Chile, Australia, and most of Africa.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research notes “By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States, could face readings in the range of -8 to -10, and much of the Mediterranean could fall to -15 to -20. Such readings would be almost unprecedented.”

For the record, the NCAR study merely models the IPCC’s “moderate” A1B scenario — atmospheric concentrations of CO2 around 520 ppm in 2050 and 700 in 2100, which looks close to what Wigley modeled.  If this is the Golden Age of Gas, then it must be describing the color of the dust.

Thanks to Brad Johnson for finding the 1980s bridge quotes.

35 Responses to Natural Gas Is A Bridge To Nowhere — Absent a Serious Price for Global Warming Pollution

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Yet another 2 studies

    One from Boston University, which finds that gas pipe leakage causes loses of 40$ annual, which has to pay the consumer. And they find that the impact amounts to 10-15% of all human methane emissions.

    Then a recent study from Prof. R. Howard (Cornell) finds:
    “the GHG footprint of shale gas is greater than that of other fossil fuels on time scales of up to 100 years. When used to generate electricity, the shale-gas footprint is still significantly greater than that of coal at decadal time scales..”

    You can read everything about those 2 studies here, including video presentation and a recent podcast from the 19th of january…

  2. prokaryotes says:

    To understand why it is of utmost importance to reduce methane emissions, we need to account for the protective ozone layer.

    Last year the northern hemisphere saw for the first time a ozone hole forming. This was predicted to happen in 1998 by NASA. NOw the attribution is in part to methane, about 1/3.


    Water vapor breaks down in the stratosphere, releasing reactive hydrogen oxide molecules that destroy ozone. These molecules also react with chlorine containing gases, converting them into forms that destroy ozone as well. So a wetter stratosphere will have less ozone.

    Observations of ozone show a thinning of the Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer by about 3 to 8% overall since the 1970s. In the upper stratosphere, ozone depletion has been from 15 to 20%. Again, the model is better able to reproduce these values when increased water vapor is included. This is especially true in the upper stratosphere, where ozone is most sensitive to water. The model indicates that increased water vapor accounts for about 40% of the ozone loss in the upper stratosphere, and about 20% of the overall loss to date.

    There are two driving forces behind the change in stratospheric moisture. Increasing emissions of methane are transformed into water in the stratosphere by chemical reactions. This can account for about a third of the observed increase in moisture there.

    Ozone depletion in the northern hemisphere, threatens crops, and is tied to cancer causing UVB radiation amounts.

  3. Start Loving says:


    Natural Gas is a bridge to Hell-on-Earth! Or, did someone move the goalposts, giving us additional decades, and we don’t need to get, BY 2020:

    1. CARBON DOWN 80%?
    2. MASSIVE REMEDIATION UNDERWAY? Plan B, by whatever name.

    If the Apollo 13 ground crew had your level of precision, self discipline… there would be dead bodies floating in space.


    Forget your readers, we cowards on the left, for a moment. You have kids, grandkids, a heart, a conscience. Go there. Please.

  4. prokaryotes says:

    Compilation of recent ozone depletion findings

    There is now even a study (2011) which ties ozone depletion to weather anomalies. It is considered to be a game changer.

    Fossil fuels threaten the survival of the species now, more than ever before. We require mandatory actions to deal with the consequences already upon us.

  5. Sasparilla says:

    Joe, you’re totally right on all this….but I doubt the administration will be caring a bit about climate change (just as the President didn’t mention it with the cancellation of the Keystone XL extension the GOP handed him). I think if climate change gets mentioned tonight at all, with regards to natural gas, it will be in relation to natural gas being so much cleaner to burn than coal and the supply being so large.

    As far as where the administration will be touting natural gas, while power plants seem obvious the market is already doing that naturally and its not much of a talking point. Makes me wonder if the big talking point will be for moving natural gas into transportation (federal support for natural gas dispensing infrastructure along highways or something like that) where it can be burned much less efficiently than in power plants but will be much cheaper than gasoline / diesel for the future. The oil companies would not like this.

    It’ll be interesting to see what the President says. In just the last couple of days, natural gas prices have been climbing as a large producer (Peabody I think) announced they are shutting in a significant portion of their wells because natural gas prices are so low (other produces are expected to follow).

  6. Robert Nagle says:

    Holy cow. Carbon price of $330 if we wanted to stay under 550 ppm. What the heck was IEA’s estimated price to reach 450 ppm by 2030?

  7. Joe Romm says:

    You need a 2030 CO2 price of “$180/tonne in the 450 Policy Scenario” — $660 a metric ton of carbon. That’s the price of our dawdling. note that’s mostly to deal with the transportation sector. You could in theory use regulations to address much of the transport sector.

  8. Lou Grinzo says:

    Once again, let me point out the absurdity of CNG vehicles with a link to my post in which I compared the CO2/mile emissions of the three main variants of the Honda Civic currently for sale in the US (gasoline non-hybrid, gasoline hybrid, CNG non-hybrid).

    A wholesale embrace of CNG for transportation requires a sizable infrastructure investment (but still much less than that needed for hydrogen, obviously) and locks us into a new embrace of fossil fuels in return for minimal CO2 reductions.

  9. Sasparilla says:

    Just to correct myself there, it was Chesapeake Energy that announced it was closing in its wells (Peabody is a coal producer).

  10. Sasparilla says:

    So very true Lou, but CO2 emissions haven’t been on the administration’s mind since it came into office as the 1st two tar sands pipelines it approved demonstrated.

    From an easy “get me elected again” energy “solution” for the country and promises big discounts from gasoline & diesel (for the now and long term future) with lots of money pushing for it and its domestically produced – I could see our President pushing this tonight (serious move of natural gas into transportation) and hitting it out of the park with a big chunk of the population (despite the fact that it would ruin the future of the world).

    I don’t know if he’ll do it or not, obviously the oil industry wouldn’t want this, but they publicly declared war on the President already (…serious political consequences if XL was cancelled).

    Outside of the awfulness of such a position by the Admin, it would be amusing to watch the Republicans scatter all over the place with such a move by the President. Oil would not want it at all, but natural gas would want something else and they pay alot to politicians too.

  11. Paul Magnus says:

    The time is arriving where we just have to drop everything and go to war with GW. Carbon pricing is now too late to achieve what is needed. We should be putting our energy in to initiating emergency action to tackle GW.

    Where are our leaders?

  12. Chris says:

    Just curious, but where is that bridge picture from?

  13. Jeff H says:

    May I Ask?

    I’m trying to get re-calibrated. Here are some numbers that would help me “get my head around” things:

    First, what total annual emissions of GHGs (put on a CO2-equivalent basis) could humankind allow itself on a steady-state basis if we wanted to maintain a steady-state atmospheric concentration of 350ppm (after having achieved that level in the first place)? In other words, I’m interested in steady-state figures. AFTER getting down to 350ppm (somehow!), what level of steady-state emissions would allow the steady-state maintenance of 350ppm?

    Second, by simple math, what per-capita emissions does that imply — for a global population of 7 billion people, assuming everyone is allowed equal emissions?

    It seems to me that we always ought to have these figures in mind — to keep in mind (at least roughly) where we might, or might need to, or ought to be headed.

    And, does President Obama know these figures? Does S. Chu? Does CAP? Do you, Joe? It would be nice to always have them at our fingertips. (Sorry that I don’t.)

    Thanks, and Be Well,


  14. prokaryotes says:

    Jeff, even with 350 we are in the realm of possible feedbacks. The last 800.000 years according to antarctic icecore data we had around 280ppm.

    I think the future can only mean negative emissions (biochar, carbon capture, outphasing fossil fuel consumption, carbon sink management, increasing carbon sink potentials, negative technologies such as Artificial photosynthesis or algae fuels).

  15. Chris says:

    Oh that is an interesting read. Nice to see the Japanese can do silly things as well!

  16. prokaryotes says:

    The last comment is interesting (if true)

    Japan is famous for its overbuilt infrastructure. Basically, the government doesn’t know how to stimulate the economy, except by building infrastructure. So they just keep building infrastructure. Even when it’s already overbuilt, they continue to build more and more.
    The planners are basically in the situation of having to come up with places to spend money, even when there’s no need for it. Bridges and tunnels are good ways to “absorb” excess money, because of their extreme cost.

  17. Joe, we’re thinking along same lines. My feature article “Shale Gas a Bridge to More Global Warming” was published this morning on the IPS news wire. It also looks the new Howarth study and NCAR study.

    Howarth told me: “Our primary concern is that methane emissions over the coming two decades will drive the entire climate system past a major tipping point.”

  18. Mike Roddy says:

    This is an important post, thanks, and also to Stephen Leahy for the Howarth link.

    Certain people seem to love all kinds of energy production- as long as they come from fossil fuels. Time to say no, this is friggin’ crazy.

  19. Clinton M says:

    Nothing wrong with touting gas — if you also tout a rising carbon price, which the (P)resident once did but no longer does.

    Do people know who their allies are and who the enemy is?

    How exactly do you propose the President accomplish a price on carbon when the House is controlled by Republicans and Republicans in the Senate have used the filibuster to require 60 votes in order to pass anything and everything?

    I searched this page for terms like “President” and “GOP” and “Republicans” and “Democrats” … and although it may be handy to use one person or one position as a point of attack, I do not understand how directing negative talk towards the President and not towards the actual obstructionists.

    If President Obama loses this fall, do you think we will get a carbon price? Do you think the climate policies will get better?

    If you listened to the President’s State of the Union speech tonight, the President proposed eliminating tax breaks and preferential tax policies for carbon fuels.

    Jeez… do you understand what that is? Do you understand how in a world where the climate message is not understood, proposals like this may be the planet’s best friend?

    And do you understand the chances of tax breaks ending with a GOP President?

    No chance at all.

    So please… can we focus on how to GET stuff done rather than just point out negatives?????

  20. Clinton M says:

    To be more clear… in an environment of absolute, uncompromising GOP obstructionism on climate and pollution policies, eliminating tax breaks and government subsidies *is* the path to get the bridge to lead somewhere.

    So your statement that the President once touted a rising carbon price, “but no longer does” is not true.

    We better understand who our allies are and who are against a liveable planet.

  21. Clinton M says:

    Jeez… I hate that I cannot edit my comments when I forget words:

    eliminating tax breaks and government subsidies FOR CARBON FUELS” is what I meant.

  22. David B. Benson says:

    And the second ‘bridge to nowhere’ photo is also from Japan?

  23. David B. Benson says:

    &Unfortunately, wind turbines require a balancing agent for the roughly 75% of the time the turb ines are not generating. The usual choice of balancing agent is natgas burners. The evidence is from ERCOT, the Texas grid, some locations in Europe and increasingly where in the Pacific Northwest. Bluntly put, wherever wind farms go in natgas burners are sure to follow.

    That would change with a high enough price on natgas.

  24. Polymerase says:

    Anyone care to comment on this peer-reviewed study from Carnegie Mellon University published in Environmental Research Letters on 8/5/2011? I’m surprised that it was ignored in the above blog post.

    Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of
    Marcellus shale gas

    From the abstract:
    “Natural gas from the Marcellus shale has generally lower life cycle GHG emissions
    than coal for production of electricity in the absence of any effective carbon capture and storage
    processes, by 20–50% depending upon plant efficiencies and natural gas emissions variability.”

  25. Clinton M says:

    To me, this (benefits of gas vs. coal) sounds like time. Time gained to educate the public about the imminent and urgent situation and counter the tobacco lobbyists now turned Big Carbon lobbyists.

    As a climate hawk, I see this November election as the battle between dirty energy greed and using our education to do what we can for a liveable planet.

    It’s sure not happening with the current House majority and that means we need whatever short term fixes we can get until the deniers and their carbon lobbyists are defeated by a better educated public.

    In the meantime, I’m curious more about what WE can DO, vs. non-stop depressing and negative news.

    thank you.

  26. Spike says:

    Revkin is keen on the gas bridge idea – I pointed out the NCAR study on his site and its conclusions, but it received no comment. There is a lot of magical wishful thinking going on out there.

  27. Raindog says:

    I would be for charging a fair carbon price on fossil fuels. That would drive better behavior for all involved.

    On the NCAR study, the positive impact of switching to gas is largely offset by the decrease in particulates that comes from shutting down coal. Of course this number will be the same if we switch to wind and solar too. Does anyone have a sense of what that number is? That is – the amount of additional warming that will come when we stop putting sulfates in the air from burning coal? How much of the benefit of switching to wind and solar is offset by that?

    It is odd that some are looking at that as a good thing about coal. This pollution causes all sorts of respiratory problems and is thought to kill tens of thousands prematurely each year.

  28. Raindog says:

    I searched online for what the impact of switching from coal to wind and solar would be and found this

    This person talked to Tom Wigley, the author of the NCAR study. He writes

    “Since the graphic shows that even zero leakage of methane caused the projected temperature to rise, I was curious as to just how much of the effect was due to the emissions of the coal plants themselves. So I contacted Tom Wigley, the author of the paper, and posed the following question: “Is it true per your models that if we switched from coal to a zero emissions source of electricity that the short-term climate change impact would also be negative due to the loss of the cooling effect from coal’s particulate emissions?”

    He replied to my e-mail fairly quickly: “Yes. This “problem” was first pointed out by me in 1991. I’ll attach this paper, plus the coal-to-gas paper. In 1991 I did not consider carbonaceous aerosols. The issue of balancing the disbenefit of less aerosols implies warming vs the benefit of less SO2 emissions implies pollution benefits is a tricky one.” (The 1991 paper he referred to was “Could Reducing Fossil-Fuel Emissions Cause Global Warming?” — published in Nature).

    So there you have it. Per this study, shutting down all coal-fired power plants and not even replacing them would cause the temperature to increase in the short term because of the loss of sunlight-reflecting pollutants. Thus, the real story here is about the secondary effect of coal-fired power plants and not about any deficiencies of natural gas.”

    Wow – shutting down coal plants and not replacing them with anything will cause a temperature rise. So gas isn’t really the problem – its the secondary impact of coal. The sooner we get off coal the better.

  29. #15 Howarth et all 2012 cites the Jiang et al study noting that it too concludes shale gas has more emissions but at the very low end. Jiang estimates are also well below a more recent EPA study. It is all discussed in the Howarth paper here.

  30. Carl says:

    To build on David B Benson’s post above – you say, “We don’t want new gas plants to displace new renewables, like solar and wind, which are going to be the some of the biggest, sustainable job creating industries of the century.”
    Does not a big wind industry ensure and extend our dependence on load-balancing natural gas?

  31. Joe Romm says:

    Not in any meaningful way. We don’t need to go to zero emissions tomorrow. We do need to starting replacing coal plants because the industry has refused to invest in carbon capture and storage. That should be done with a combination of wind, PV, solar thermal, other renewables, and efficiency, and demand response. Existing gas plants can do the load-balancing. Again, we still have a lot of underutilized gas plants.

  32. Joe Romm says:

    you miss the point — gas is still a hydrocarbon and of course it’s leaky.

  33. Raindog says:

    There are at least five studies that have come out after Howarth et al. that show shale gas has GHG emissions roughly half those of coal on a life-cycle basis and the Carnegie Mellon study is one of those. Howarth et al. is an outlier. Shale gas may actually have lower emissions in some cases, because they commonly drill multiple wells from a single location and may be able to flow the gas that would otherwise be flared or less commonly vented directly into a pipeline. I could see mandating this as a good way to decrease emissions further.

    Here is a link to a site that has links to all of the studies including those done by NETL, University of Maryland, Carnegie Mellon, Worldwatch Institute, IHS-CERA and more.

  34. David B. Benson says:

    I disagree with respect to balancing agents for wind turbines. The data from several regions in the US and in Europe all tend to towards the same conclusion: wind power promotes the construction of new natgas burners and becuase of ineeficient genration via ramping natgas burners, little to negative excess CO2 emissions are foregone.

    Natgas burners are either OCGT or CCGT. The former are quite inefficient but very fast to start and stop; one wnats to use these only when necessary. In principle CCGTs can ramp at 7% per minute and again in principle have up to 60% thermal efficiency but not when usede as (partial) balancing agents for wind power. The CCGT plants are generally used to start up in the early morning and run until the 10 o’clock ‘evening’ news is over and the net load drops to the nighttime base load. Adding wind turbines messes up that schedule. In any case, utilities keep adding CCGTs and so the claim of excess or even ample natgas burners is refuted by the facts.