America’s newly abundant natural gas supplies offer the opportunity to address two goals at once — increasing the amount of affordable, reliable energy powering the world economy, and making progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The U.S. natural gas boom is already fueling growth in our economy, producing new jobs in energy and aiding a manufacturing renaissance. The steel and chemical industries that use natural gas as an energy source or raw material are expanding U.S. investment for the first time in years. BASF, for example, has invested $5.7 billion in the U.S. since 2009 because of low natural gas prices.
And increased natural gas use is benefiting the climate, too. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector are down to mid-1990s levels, in part because electric generators are using more natural gas, which emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal. At Dominion, electricity production from natural gas units is up more than 70 percent in just three years.
There are many other opportunities beyond the power sector to make use of natural gas, producing significant climate benefits in the near to medium term.
Many consumers do not even have the option of choosing natural gas to heat their homes or power their ranges and hot water tanks. Only 54 percent of new homes built in the United States have access to the abundant supplies of domestic natural gas. The mid-Atlantic region is a highly competitive market for gas delivery. But in other regions of the country, pipelines are at capacity or there is no access at all. New policies and innovative funding models are needed to encourage building infrastructure to deliver natural gas to more homes and businesses.
We could also reduce emissions and our reliance on petroleum by substituting natural gas for diesel and gasoline in vehicle fleets and heavy-duty trucks. More than 120,000 vehicles on the road are fueled by natural gas, mostly buses and trucks. A natural gas-powered vehicle releases up to one-fourth fewer greenhouse gas emissions than one running on gasoline or diesel. We are already seeing movement in this direction. United Parcel Service recently announced plans to buy about 700 liquefied natural gas vehicles and build four refueling stations by the end of next year. And natural gas refueling stations could soon be available at hundreds of truck stops.
In manufacturing, perhaps the greatest opportunity to reduce emissions is expanding the use of combined heat and power (CHP), also known as cogeneration. A CHP unit burns natural gas to generate the electricity that runs a factory, while also capturing waste heat for space or water heating or for use in the manufacturing process. This approach can be 50 percent more efficient than buying electricity from the grid and using a conventional boiler. But innovative policies are needed to align the incentives of all stakeholders, and address the effects on the broader power system.
While these approaches can help reduce carbon emissions, natural gas is a fossil fuel — and it is not carbon-free. Industry, academia and environmental advocacy groups are working together to quantify and better understand the leakage of methane, the primary component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas. Recent evidence from EPA’s 2013 Annual Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks shows that methane emissions from natural gas systems have declined even while natural gas use has increased. To fully realize the potential climate benefits of natural gas, we must do more to measure and minimize methane leaks throughout the natural gas system.
We would also be wise to resist the immediate attraction of going all in on natural gas. Fuel diversity, which includes coal, is essential to protecting American electricity consumers. In particular, we must ensure that natural gas does not crowd out zero-carbon energy produced by nuclear, solar, hydro and wind — sources needed to achieve deeper long-term emission reductions. Indeed, natural gas and renewables complement each other because natural gas serves as the principal backup to intermittent wind and solar resources.
Finally, if natural gas is to fit our energy and climate needs over the long haul, we must perfect and deploy the technologies that can capture carbon emissions from coal- or natural gas-fired power plants and store them safely underground.
Simply substituting natural gas for other fossil fuels is not by itself a long-term solution to climate change. But, wisely used, natural gas can both contribute to America’s economic growth and put us on the path to a lower-carbon future.
Eileen Claussen is president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the successor to the Pew Center for Global Climate Change. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Farrell is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Dominion Resources, one of the nation’s largest producers and transporters of energy. Contact him at email@example.com.