Climate Change Organization Finds Gas Key to Reducing Emissions

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions’ new report “Leveraging Natural Gas to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions” is sure to disappoint hydraulic fracturing opponents who are bent on shutting down natural gas development. It finds that natural gas has played a key role in reducing carbon emissions and strengthening the economy, and increased use of natural gas will continue this trend:

“At the beginning of 2013, energy sector emissions are at the lowest levels since 1994, in part because of the substitution of natural gas for coal in the power sector. Substitution of natural gas for coal, petroleum, and grid-supplied electricity is underway in other parts of the economy and will bring similar benefits to the climate and air quality […] In the coming years, abundant natural gas will play an increasingly prominent role across all sectors of the U.S. economy. Increased availability of natural gas can yield economic opportunities and lower greenhouse gas emissions.”

The report addresses how these emissions reductions can be maximized in several sectors, including power generation, buildings, manufacturing and transportation.  The authors lend considerable attention to the positive impact that natural gas is having on manufacturing, providing both economic and environmental benefits:

“The increased availability of low-priced natural gas has had positive economic impact on U.S. manufacturing and sector expansion is expected to continue. Given that natural gas is a feedstock and a fuel source for this industry, the efficient use of natural gas needs to be continually encouraged. The emissions implications of using natural gas as a feedstock are very different from its other uses because feedstock use transforms hydrocarbon molecules into other products, rather than burning them. When natural gas is used as a feedstock, therefore, very low greenhouse gases emissions are produced.”

C2ES also finds that natural gas plays a key role in renewable energy production, arguing that their relationship is “mutually beneficial”:

“Natural gas can be complementary with renewable energy. Instead of being thought of as competitors, natural gas and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar can be complementary components of the power sector. Natural gas plants have the ability to quickly scale up or down their electricity production and so can act as an effective hedge against the intermittency of renewables.”

That’s certainly a wake-up call to anti-fracking activists, who frequently claim that expanding responsible natural gas development will “crowd out” renewables. The reality, as other experts have stated time and again, is that the renewables that these groups so desperately want to advance actually need natural gas, which is both a clean energy option and capable of providing baseload, affordable power.

Of course, the report also observes that greenhouse gas emissions reductions from natural gas can only reach full impact if there is also a significant reduction in methane leakage during production.  This process is already well underway, which the report does concede as well.  According to its calculations, thanks to infrastructure improvements and advancements in technology, total methane emissions have declined 13 percent from 1990 to 2011, even as natural gas production has grown.

The report also points to the fact that EPA just dramatically reduced its estimate of how much methane is released during natural gas production, and states that this downward trend must continue for emission benefits to be fully realized. The good news? EPA’s methane estimates – against which most other data are compared – are themselves way too high. The actual amount of methane released is drastically lower than even EPA projects, and producers are rapidly reducing them even further.

Why are EPA’s estimates too high? Well, for one, the agency relies on assumptions that are just not based on actual industry practice.  EPA assumes that if a company is not required to utilize a “green completion” (where methane is captured at the well head) or the flaring process (where the methane is burned off) then companies are simply venting methane into the air.  EPA also assumes that the flowback periods for wells that use green completions are identical to wells that vent or flare the gas, which means that EPA is calculating durations of emissions that are more than double what they actually are.

Just imagine how significant a downward revision would be if EPA corrected all its assumptions and relied solely on the facts about how industry operates!

With the methane question well on its way to being resolved, the main takeaway from this report is that natural gas is clearly good for the environment, and is providing a huge economic stimulus to the U.S. economy.

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