Thursday, January 26, 2012

Statement: Is Natural Gas A Bridge To Nowhere, As Joe Romm Says?

Joe Romm who does important work about climate change and who runs recently posted that natural gas is a bridge to nowhere.  See

Let's be clear that Romm's beef with natural gas concerns carbon emissions.  Romm likely would agree that, if  the world switched completely from coal to gas and from oil to gas, that global mercury, lead, arsenic, smog-causing pollution, acid rain, and deadly soot all would be slashed.  This hypothetical complete transition to gas would literally save every year hundreds of thousands of lives and possibly millions.

Even the air in Beijing would be safe to breathe, if China ran on gas.  Fish would not be contaminated with mercury around the world, if the world ran on gas.  The one-in-six women in the USA that do have elevated levels of mercury in their blood, as a result of global coal burning, would be free of mercury, if the world ran on gas.

Gas emits zero or close to zero of major pollutants that cause havoc to the world's environment and public health. It causes minor damage to water compared to the massive harm done by oil leaks and spills and coal mining. Gas is orders of magnitude less dirty than coal or oil.

But gas is not perfectly clean.  It does emit carbon emissions when combusted.  And Romm's beef with natural gas is about carbon emissions.

Yet, carbon emissions from coal are twice those of gas, according to a slew of studies, including the Sierra Club financed Carnegie Mellon University, Worldwatch Institute, National Energy Technology Laboratory reports as well as others.  Thankfully, in his post, Romm does not cite the Howarth lifecycle gas study that has been debunked by as many as 6 other studies, including another group of Cornell University professors, all of which confirm that coal emits two times more carbon than gas on a life cycle basis.

In his Bridge To Nowhere post, Romm appropriately notes that the methane leakage rate of the natural gas industry impacts what role gas can play in solving climate change.  He, in fact, says that gas could play a significant, positive role if the methane leakage rate of the gas industry was below 2% but expresses skepticism that the rate is at level. 

Some research underway may shed light on whether the gas industry is or is not already at the 2% level.  But if the industry is not, it can clearly get there and must. Indeed, even Professor Howarth concedes so. Howarth says in his January 2012 paper: "Can shale-gas methane emissions be reduced? Clearly yes, and proposed EPA regulations to require capture of gas at the time of well completions are an important step."  Those are the words of the most extreme, anti-gas academic and his position on the current status of gas's carbon footprint is overwhelmingly rejected by an avalanche of expert studies.

The United Nations and the world's climate experts state that the world must reduce carbon emissions 50% by 2050 to stabilize heat trapping pollution at levels that would avoid truly dangerous change and risks.  To achieve such reductions in effectively 39 years, all tools that can reduce emissions must be deployed and as early as possible. There is no time left to wait for a magical energy breakthrough.

Gas is ready now. It is a low-cost way to cut carbon emissions 50% today every time it displaces a kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by coal.  In the US, gas is displacing coal. Coal's share of the electricity market has fallen from 52% in 2000 to 43% in 2011 and will likely be 41% by 2013. Gas's share has risen from 16% in 2000 to 25% now.

And as gas displaces coal, where are the US's fossil fuel carbon emissions? They are back to below 2000 levels, even though America today has 30 million more people and that our GDP is considerably bigger.

To be clear once more, the progress that America is making on carbon is not just because of gas.  Energy efficiency as well as the boom in renewable fuels are central too.

No one tool or even three or four tools will get done the daunting job of reducing global emissions 50%. Yet the "perfectionist caucus" often stands in the way of each and every possible action in the real world of project development, for its true that some find offshore and onshore wind ugly, that wind does kill birds and bats, that six nuclear reactors have melted down in the last 35 years, that burning wood emits soot and carbon, and that gas is not perfect. No matter the inevitable attacks on anything and everything, energy efficiency, nuclear, renewables, carbon capture storage, electric vehicles,  gas displacing coal and oil and much more will be needed.

Moreover, even if it were possible, switching the entire world to gas would not achieve by itself the 50% carbon reduction needed by 2050, since gas does emit carbon. But that does not mean gas has no role to play in solving the climate problem, even without carbon capture and storage technology.

Gas can cut 50% of the carbon emissions of coal and do so cheaply, lowering hugely the cost of carbon reductions, thereby making more and earlier carbon reductions economically and politically possible.

Romm himself does state that replacing existing coal generation with gas is a good thing for the climate.  It literally cuts by 50% the carbon emissions from the plant. It does so today, right now, and produces electricity at a lower price than coal in the US.  That is consistent with the goal of a 50% reduction of carbon by 2050. 

For these reasons, it is hyperbolic to say gas is a bridge to nowhere. Nobody that I know, and I certainly am not saying that gas alone solves the climate problem.  It does not. But just as clearly gas can help cool our planet.

What about the Wigley study that Romm and others cite?  The study uses modeling based upon a number of assumptions and scenarios to look at climate impacts this century or the short term in climatic terms at this point.  It points out that gas replacing coal reduces sulfate aerosols--a cooling forcing--and thereby perversely marginally raises temperatures for short periods.  Renewables or nuclear energy replacing coal would also reduce the sulfates--the cooling forcing--and have the same effect as gas doing so.

The Wigley study assumes that gas replaces just 50% of coal.  Since this is a modeling exercise, why not assume gas replaces 100% of coal?  Not enough renewable energy also will do little to change global temperatures over the next 90 years.  Indeed, the climate has already changed, and many scientists say a lot more warming is already baked into the climate system, even at current levels of global warming pollution.

The Wigley study assumes that 83% of the sulfur dioxide from coal is eliminated over 50 years.  The reductions may well be much quicker and will be in the USA.  The study's results change for the better if the reductions happen much sooner.

But most importantly the Wigley study itself, despite removing the cooling forcing of sulfate aerosols,  finds in 3 of 4 scenarios that gas makes a positive contribution this century and a substantial contribution if the methane leakage rate is 2% or less.  Many believe the leakage rate at least in the US is there now, and more data is on the way.

Whether the leakage rate is at 2% or not, it can and must go lower from current levels.  Importantly and perhaps encouragingly, there is broad agreement that the July 2011 EPA proposed rule would reduce further methane leakage rates.  The rule is vital for air quality and our climate.

Gas alone cannot solve the climate problem. That is true.  Yet, the climate will not be stabilized, without gas playing a major role right now in lowering carbon pollution, until perhaps someday the world captures carbon or transitions from carbon to hydrogen.


  1. Concerned ScientistJanuary 26, 2012 at 7:39 AM

    Great post - I saw that post over there at Climate progress. They make the perfect the enemy of the good.

    The warming that comes from stopping coal burning should be linked to coal not whatever replaces it. Apparently, even if coal burning stopped and was not even replaced with anything the temperature would go up because the cooling effect of the sulfate aerosols would be reduced and the full effect of the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere would then cause the climate to warm. Romm is saying this is a bad thing about replacing coal with gas, but it is really a bad thing about coal. If we replace coal with wind or solar the same thing will happen.

    I think Romm may be driven by hatred of oil companies as much or more than he is driven by a desire to avert a global warming catastrophe. There are many posts over there about the high price of gasoline that suggest gouging by oil companies. Of course nothing cuts gasoline consumption (and therefore emissions) more than high prices so they should be cheering high prices. This hatred of oil companies is probably what motivates Howarth and many of the anti-shale gas people. Oil companies are their "evil other" so nothing they do could possibly be beneficial.

    Romm used to be pro-shale gas until it became a reality and then he quickly switched over. Can't be on the same side as the oil companies. The same thing happened with Robert Kennedy Jr.

  2. John - Can you contact me about presenting for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Smart Energy Initiative?

    1. I sent you an email and would be glad to talk.

  3. First, an abridged version of a comment I made here on the Wigley paper a few months back. In short, the Wigley paper is completely unreliable representation of any carbon-policy world where coal use is reduced to reduce overall GHG emissions, and it mirrors your comments, John.


    This paper is not nearly as good as the spin it's getting. Simply put, he's treating gas as a partial replacement fuel and not a bridge fuel.

    If you look at what Wigley has done, he starts with non-policy scenario of increased coal usage out to about 2110 (quadrupling the burning of coal), before the overall burning of coal beings to decrease (kind of like peak coal).

    Then, to model fuel-switching, he starts switching gas with coal such that gas replaces 50% of coal burning by 2050 and no more after that. Ultimately, gas-use quadruples by 2110. Coal use still manages to double by then (less of it being used, but it's still growing, especially if gas use is capped at 50% at 2050).

    Well, of course, if we quadruple gas use by 2110 and double coal use, there are probably going to be GHG issues. As stated before, in his model, he's treating gas as a replacement fuel and not a bridge fuel. He also doesn't include any coal being switched with other sources of energy like solar, wind, hydro, etc... Remember: fuel switching is not going to occur in a policy vacuum, but where other, much cleaner fuels will also be used to take coal out of the fuel mix. And it's this total fuel mix we need to know the emissions of.

    So, the conclusions aren't very reliable unless people were seriously considering burning that much coal and gas that far into the future, which I hope policy makers weren't.


    Second, I've tried to get comments like this onto Romm's site before, this most recent one and an earlier one, only to get hung up in his comment-moderation process (i.e. he never approves them to show up on his blog).

    I'd hope that I'm caught up in his spam filter. Otherwise, it means what I'm saying doesn't fit his narrative, thus it must be stopped before it contaminates anybody else.

    1. Concerned ScientistJanuary 27, 2012 at 9:17 AM

      Miguelito - Your analysis is the clearest I have heard. It seems like the way to get your paper a lot of press and to get on NPR is to write something where gas ends up looking bad.

      Has anyone written a discussion of the NCAR paper that points this out? It won't get any press but it would be good to correct the record within the climate science world.

      Interesting that the closer a paper gets to accurate the less press it gets. I guess good news just doesn't sell.

    2. Concerned ScientistJanuary 27, 2012 at 9:24 AM

      Miguelito - have you written up anything that summarizes the points above about the NCAR study? Can you point me to a link? Thanks

    3. Unfortunately, no, I don't have anything more than what's above, except for the original from a few months back and the only things I snipped from it to make this post were comments about the leakage rates.

  4. John,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this analysis. It and the commments were very instructive. The thing that's missing from almost the entire energy equation, in my opion, is a universal understanding and acceptance of what our carbon emissiona are doing to the planet. As a "root-causer", I am concerned that the sense of urgency is lacking, in contrast to, say, a more tangible threat to our security. Obama's near silence on the issues of global warming and ocean acidification have led to an informational vacuum that allows his opponents the opportunity to get away with all kinds of criminal mischief. The harassment of our researchers is just one example.

    What I'm getting at here is the transition would be happening faster if we could kill the denial. There would be no room for opposition.

    I was encouraged, however, to see the video from the United Nations Investors Summit (available on Youtube). There was a LOT of climate reality in the room. That was refreshing.

    1. Concerned ScientistJanuary 27, 2012 at 9:23 AM


      It is an enormous issue - it will be the biggest issue someday. Ironically shale gas is the best news we have had on the issue for 20 years. Our emissions are falling and we don't have to change our behavior at all. In fact energy is getting cheaper! Anything that requires paying more or changing our lifestyle in any significant way isn't going to be popular and any politician who tries to push through a carbon tax or anything like that better keep their resume updated. It's sad but true.

      Shale gas also puts off the worst impacts of peak oil which will include more coal mining, more heavy oil and more wars for oil. All of these will exacerbate global warming.

      If I were in charge of PR for shale gas companies, I would be making ads that show decreasing carbon emissions and other pollution, cheaper energy bills and more jobs - all as a result of shale gas! And it has the benefit of being true!