“Near Zero” Report has Zero Credibility on GHG Emissions

This week a group of researchers from the University of California, Irvine and Stanford, affiliated with a group called Near Zero, released a report that uses a number of modeling exercises to come to the head-scratching conclusion that natural gas does not provide climate benefits – even in a scenario where there are no methane emissions whatsoever.  Not even some of the most avid anti-fracking researchers – or even Josh Fox himself – would go that far.

In order to come to their conclusion, the researchers surveyed 23 “experts” and then fed their predictions and assumptions into a model of the energy system.  The researchers explain that they conducted modeling for three scenarios: a scenario in which no climate policy is instated, a scenario in which a mild climate policy is instated, and a scenario in which the United States adopts a cap-and-trade system.  As the report concludes,

“Results from the three climate policies suggests abundant natural gas may aid in decreasing coal use, but at the same time will delay the use and price-competitiveness of lower-carbon renewable energy sources…The effect is that abundant natural gas does little to reduce GHGs in our model outputs, even assuming very low rates of methane leakage.”  (p. 2)

So who were the “experts” consulted in this latest study on natural gas and greenhouse gas emissions?  The name that most stands out is Anthony Ingraffea, an outspoken anti-fracking activist from Cornell, who famously said natural gas was a “gangplank” to more warming.

The last study published by these same researchers happens to be an anti-Keystone XL report, which claims to have “surveyed a variety of oil sands experts about the impact of KXL on future oil sands production.”  Only those experts happened to be the likes of well-known activist Bill McKibben, Sierra Club’s Kate Colarulli, and Greenpeace’s Keith Stewart, just to name a few.

Aside from the fact that many of their experts may not be exactly unbiased, the researchers’ conclusion has been directly contradicted by the world’s most prominent climate scientists and an overwhelming number of academic institutions. Here’s what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had to say about the environmental benefits of natural gas in its latest climate assessment:

“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply… this is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.”

The IPCC then comes to exactly the opposite conclusion of the Near Zero researchers, finding that even taking into account methane leakage during natural gas production, natural gas still maintains its climate benefits:

“Taking into account revised estimates for fugitive methane emissions, recent lifecycle assessments indicate that specific GHG emissions are reduced by one half (on a per‐kWh basis) when shifting from the current world‐average coal‐fired power plant to a modern natural gas combined‐cycle (NGCC) power plant, evaluated using the 100‐year global warming potentials (GWP) (Burnham et al., 2012), as indicated in Figure 7.6 (Section 7.8).”

The IPCC isn’t the only one to come to that conclusion. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) found recently that the “increase in natural gas-fired generation…substantially reduced the carbon intensity of electricity generation in 2012.”

The Paris-based International Energy Agency reported that the “decline in energy-related CO2 emissions in the United States in recent years has been one of the bright spots in the global picture. One of the key reasons has been the increased availability of natural gas, linked to the shale gas revolution.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has credited the increased use of natural gas as the primary reason CO2 emissions from U.S. power plants “were 23 percent lower in 2012.”

Finally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found in its latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory not only that methane emissions from natural gas production dramatically decreased in the midst of an energy boom, but that natural gas was responsible for major greenhouse gas reductions. As the EPA puts it,

“In 2012, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were 6,501.5 Tg or million metric tons CO2 Eq. Total U.S. emissions have increased by 4.4 percent from 1990 to 2012, andemissions decreased from 2011 to 2012 by 3.3 percent (225.0 6 Tg CO2 Eq.). The decrease from 2011 to 2012 was due to a decrease in the carbon intensity of fuels consumed to generate electricity […] with increased natural gas consumption.”

Granted these studies above are looking at trends that have already happened while the Near Zero study is using models to predict the future – however, the Near Zero researchers’ entire premise is that the influx of abundant, cheap natural gas means that consumers will use more electricity and GHGs will go up.  But that argument misses a crucial point: cheap, abundant natural gas is already here and consumers are already benefiting from lower prices – and, at the same time, the United States has decreased its greenhouse gas emissions to a twenty year low.

As for the Near Zero report’s claim on renewables being “crowded out,” actually the opposite is true – natural gas has provided support for renewables by providing clean-burning, base load power when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.

That natural gas and renewables are friends rather than foe is reflected in a recent report by EIA, which found that natural gas, solar and wind led power plant additions in the first half of 2014.  A report by the Texas Clean Energy Coalition found natural gas and renewables “are complementary, not competing, resources.”  Texas, which happens to be one of the top natural gas producing states, is also leading the United States in wind energy production.

Not even the wind and solar industry agrees with Near Zero.  As Rhone Resch, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association has explained, “Natural gas and renewables complement each other very nicely.” But perhaps Berkeley Professor Richard Muller put it best in a report explaining why environmentalists should embrace hydraulic fracturing and natural gas:

“Yet cheap natural gas can also make it easier for solar and wind energy to further penetrate electricity markets by providing the rapid back-up that those intermittent sources require. In addition, natural gas is the only base load fuel that can be downscaled into microgrids and distributed generation networks to provide that same flexibility and reliability for solar energy on rooftops and in buildings, expanding the market for urban solar systems. Particularly for areas focusing on distributed generation, natural gas can be an enabler of wind and solar.”

So it’s little wonder that President Obama’s top environmental regulator, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said,

“Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change and support a robust clean energy market at home.”

“Completely impractical” solutions

The lead researcher of the Near Zero report, Christine Shearer, didn’t hold back on her true feelings about natural gas in an interview with Climatewire.  As she said,

“An effective bridge to a low-carbon future would be renewables,” she said, cautioning policymakers to consider long-term environmental consequences when pursuing a holistic energy plan. “You have to be careful about how you think of ‘all of the above.'”

Shearer added: “You end up still using fossil fuels.”

Shearer’s co-author Steven Davis added,

“Cutting greenhouse gas emissions by burning natural gas is like dieting by eating reduced-fat cookies,” he said. “It may be better than eating full-fat cookies, but if you really want to lose weight, you probably need to avoid cookies altogether.”

As their own report states, “Fossil fuels supply approximately 87% of the primary energy used worldwide.” Even John Podesta, President Obama’s climate advisor and the former president of the Center for American Progress (CAP), has said that the notion of just stopping the use of fossil fuels is “completely impractical.”  As he put it earlier this year,

“If you oppose all fossil fuels and you want to turn that switch off tomorrow, that is a completely impractical way of moving toward a clean-energy future,” Podesta told reporters during a roundtable discussion at the White House.

“With all due respect to my friends in the environmental community, if they expect us to turn off the lights and go home, that’s sort of an impractical suggestion,” he added.

To sum up: not only does the report go farther than even some of the most avid anti-fracking researchers have dared to go, it also offers what the former president of CAP has called a “completely impractical” suggestion – which just goes to show how much credibility the report has.

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