With 2020 Democratic presidential contenders divided over whether natural gas should play any role in plans to combat the climate crisis and as the Trump administration works to rebrand the fossil fuel as "molecules of U.S. freedom," a report released Thursday aims to debunk the prominent myth that natural gas can work as a "bridge fuel" to a clean and sustainable future.
"We simply have no more time to debate what's already been settled. We must move swiftly to a fully renewable energy economy and leave all fossil fuels, including gas, behind."
—Lorne Stockman, Oil Change International
"The mythology around gas being a 'cleaner' fossil fuel that can support the transition to clean energy goes back at least three decades," reads the new Oil Change International (OCI) report, which will be unveiled at an event in Trenton, New Jersey, where local environmental activists are battling the expansion of climate-destroying fossil fuel infrastructure.
"Oil and gas corporations have championed and invested in this myth as a way to delay the transition away from fossil fuels," OCI's report states.
As the global climate crisis intensifies, it’s clearer than ever that gas is NOT a climate solution. Our latest report, released today, unpacks and debunks the myth that gas can form a bridge to a safe climate.
— Oil Change International (@PriceofOil) May 30, 2019
OCI's analysis (pdf) notes that despite the overwhelming evidence against the view that natural gas can serve as a clean and temporary replacement for coal, "a number of politicians and decision-makers continue to repeat the myth of gas as a climate solution."
The evidence of the deeply harmful consequences of reliance on natural gas, according to OCI, goes far beyond the leakage of methane, a greenhouse gas that is considered to be 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
While acknowledging that methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure is a serious problem, OCI argues that merely reducing methane emissions—a solution pushed by the Obama administration—would not make natural gas a climate-friendly energy source.
OCI's report—titled "Burning the 'Gas Bridge' Myth: Why Gas is Not Clean, Cheap, or Necessary" (pdf)—details five reasons why natural gas cannot be part of any solution that aims to confront the climate crisis with the ambition that the latest science says is necessary to avert catastrophic warming:
- Gas Breaks the Carbon Budget: The economically recoverable oil, gas, and coal in the world's currently producing and under-construction extraction projects would take the world far beyond safe climate limits. Further development of untapped gas reserves, including new shale wells, is inconsistent with the climate goals in the Paris Agreement. Even if global coal use were phased out overnight, already-developed reserves of oil and gas would push the world above 1.5°C of warming. There's simply no room for more gas.
- Coal-to-Gas Switching Doesn't Cut It: Climate goals require the energy sector to be decarbonized by mid-century. This means that both coal and gas must be phased out. Replacing coal plants with new gas plants will not cut emissions by nearly enough, even if methane leakage is kept to a minimum. Current plans for gas production growth drastically overshoot climate safe models and are a bridge to climate disaster.
- Low-Cost Renewables Can Displace Coal and Gas: The dramatic and ongoing cost declines for wind and solar disrupt the business model for gas in the power sector. Wind and solar are already cheaper to build and operate than coal and gas in most markets. Cost is clearly not a prohibitive factor to adding renewable generation capacity, whether to replace fossil fuel capacity or to meet rising demand.
- Gas Is Not Essential for Grid Reliability: Wind and solar require balancing, but gas is not the only, nor the best, resource available for doing so. Battery storage is fast becoming competitive with gas plants designed for this purpose (known as "peakers"). Wind and solar plants that are coupled with battery storage are also becoming a competitive "dispatchable" source of energy. Managing high levels of wind and solar on the grid requires optimizing a wide range of technologies and solutions, including battery storage, demand response, and transmission. There is no reason to favor gas as the primary solution.
- New Gas Infrastructure Locks In Emissions: Multibillion-dollar gas infrastructure built today is designed to operate for decades to come. Given the barriers to closing down infrastructure ahead of its expected economic lifespan, it is critical to stop building new infrastructure, the full lifetime emissions of which will not fit within Paris-aligned carbon budgets.
"Despite desperate attempts by the oil and gas industry to persuade policymakers that their products have a future in a climate-safe world, a rational look at the data clearly shows otherwise," Lorne Stockman, report author and senior research analyst for Oil Change International, said in a statement. "Any way you slice it—be it cost, reliability, or climate—gas is a loser and it's time to move on."
OCI's report comes as natural gas production and exports are reaching new heights under the Trump administration's polluter-friendly agenda.
In a press release on Tuesday, U.S. Under Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes touted the White House's efforts to spread "freedom gas throughout the world by giving America's allies a diverse and affordable source of clean energy."
According to OCI, such efforts are a "recipe for climate breakdown."
With the Trump administration aggressively pushing natural gas at home and abroad, Politico reported Wednesday that Democratic presidential contenders "have a far from unified position" on whether natural gas can play a role in tackling the climate emergency.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), as Common Dreams reported in March, released a climate agenda calling for an end to natural gas exports as well as a moratorium on all new fossil fuel infrastructure. And Washington Gov. Jay Inslee won praise from environmentalists earlier this month for his bold plan to transition the U.S. to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.
By contrast, former Vice President Joe Biden—the presumed Democratic frontrunner—is reportedly crafting a "middle ground" climate approach that would include so-called "fossil fuel options."
To Stockman, the time for debating whether to leave the door open to fossil fuel solutions has long passed.
"We simply have no more time to debate what's already been settled," Stockman said. "We must move swiftly to a fully renewable energy economy and leave all fossil fuels, including gas, behind."