Natural gas is a coal killer and renewable energy booster. That at any rate is the major conclusion of the Breakthrough Institute, an influential, independent US think tank, in a recent report. We have provided a short summary for you.
Photo: Greenpeace Italy
Recently, the influential Breakthrough Institute in the US, an independent think tank “committed to modernizing environmentalism for the 21st century” and founded in 2003 by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, produced an extensive report on the role of natural gas in the energy transition. The title of the report: “Coal Killer – How Natural Gas Fuels the Clean Energy Revolution” says it all: the authors (Michael Schellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, Alex Trembath and Max Luke) are very positive about the role of natural gas can fulfil in our future energy system.
Typical of the Breakthrough Institute’s approach, the report takes a broad view of the issue: it compares how gas performs compared to the alternatives that it tends to replace, in particularly coal. And in that comparison (which is even more relevant in countries like China and India than in the US) gas comes out a clear winner. The authors note that “While natural gas poses significant environmental challenges, its benefits over coal are undeniable. Mercury pollution, sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides, water intensity, and pollution-related costs and mortality are all reliably lower with natural gas than with coal. Methane leakage mitigation opportunities will typically prove profitable for drillers, and leakage’s effects on global climate change will prove relatively minor as long as policymakers sustain efforts to accelerate decarbonization.”
They also believe that “worries that the shale [gas] revolution will kill zero-carbon energy are overblown. Cheap, flexible natural gas generation will become more and more essential as variable renewable technologies like wind and solar achieve wider penetrations in electricity grids. And while natural gas has been partially responsible for some recent closures of nuclear power plants in the United States, the major challenges faced by nuclear power — high capital and refurbishment costs, regulatory uncertainty, and public skepticism — predate and overwhelm the competitive pressure posed by the American shale revolution. Zero-carbon technologies remain far more dependent on innovation policies than the relative price of natural gas.”
In other words: according to the Breakthrough Institute, the energy future consists of renewable energy AND nuclear power AND natural gas.
The report takes a clear stand in favour of shale gas. It notes that “the low prices created by the shale gas revolution have generated more than $100 billion in energy cost savings [in the US] every year since at least 2009 … The unconventional gas boom also generated $31 billion in state and federal revenues in 2012, revenues that are expected to grow to over $55 billion by 2025. By 2015, the additional wealth added to the American economy by the shale gas revolution will alone have exceeded the cost of all federal energy subsidies between 1950 and 2012.”
As to the negative environmental effects of shale gas, the report does not deny those but favourably compares them to the effects of coal mining and coal power production: “The environmental and community impacts of shale fracking are reliably far more modest than those created by coal mining and production. Whereas coal mining removes entire mountains and contaminates streams with hazardous waste, natural gas drill pads occupy only a few hundred square feet, and there are only a handful of cases of groundwater contamination by fracking chemicals. Whereas innovation in coal mining resulted in greater landscape degradation, innovation in gas fracking has resulted in less-toxic fracking chemicals, fewer drill pads, and better drilling practices.”
The authors make four recommendations:
- Accelerate the coal-to-gas shift in the United States
- Reduce coal consumption and coal exports. Policymakers should support policies that would leave US coal in the ground, rather than mining it for export to Europe and Asia. There will be no net environmental benefit if all of the coal that the US was going to burn for its domestic electricity is exported abroad.”
- Export natural gas technologies to coal-dependent countries. “Such an effort would align United Nations energy access goals with US and international climate goals. It would help China, India, South Africa, and other developing nations to reduce air pollution and meet growing energy demand.”
- Pay it forward. By which they mean that the US government “should make long-term investments in innovation of renewables and nuclear energy” just as it did in the development of shale gas. This last point may be surprising to most readers, but in an earlier report the Breakthrough Institute argued that – contrary to what the public has been led to believe – the shale gas revolution was not primarily brought about by the private sector in the US, but by government support.
And in case you are wondering, the Breakthrough Institute emphasizes on its website that it is not paid by industry or any other interest group.