The impacts of climate change are already occurring: There were 25 climate-related extreme weather events in the United States in the period from 2011 to 2012 that each caused at least $1 billion in damages. Fortunately, U.S. carbon pollution from energy consumption is at its lowest point since 1994, in part because electricity generation by natural gas is replacing electricity generation by coal. The modern fuel-economy standards issued by the Obama administration have reduced emissions as well. Nonetheless, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, or EIA, predicts that U.S. carbon pollution will begin to rise again by the end of this decade.
The United States is currently experiencing a boom in natural-gas production and use due to advances in drilling and extraction technologies. Because natural gas burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels and is currently affordable and abundant, it has been celebrated as a so-called bridge to a clean energy future and climate stabilization. In this scenario, natural gas would significantly displace coal in the electric-power sector, which is the largest sector in terms of primary energy consumption, and serve to balance more intermittent renewable sources of energy while we develop and deploy zero-carbon electricity systems.
This report finds that natural gas has an important role to play in achieving the emissions reductions necessary to stabilize the climate and prevent the worst impacts of global warming. In the near term, natural gas presents opportunities to reduce carbon pollution insofar as it burns more cleanly than coal and can be used to significantly replace coal in the generation of electricity. It also presents opportunities in the transportation sector, as natural-gas vehicles are a cleaner alternative to traditional vehicles and increasingly are being used in both private and public fleets. In addition, the natural-gas expansion may present some near-term economic benefits for middle- and lower-income Americans by creating jobs and stimulating the manufacturing sector.
Beyond the near term, however, there needs to be a swift transition from natural gas to zero-carbon energy, particularly in the generation of electricity. Because the combustion of natural gas produces carbon pollution, albeit less than coal, too much reliance on natural gas over the long term would make it difficult or impossible to meet climate-stabilization targets. Failure to stabilize the climate would increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, which have been shown to disproportionately harm middle- and lower-income Americans, and the tremendous cost of disaster relief would erode any short-term economic benefits of the natural-gas boom. In addition, heavy investment in natural-gas generation capacity could crowd out investments in long-term solutions such as wind, solar, wave, and other renewable electricity sources. A rapid shift from natural gas to zero-carbon energy is therefore critical. Our analysis finds that the use of natural gas must peak no later than 17 years from now, in 2030—which is sooner than many policymakers currently realize is necessary—if the United States is to meet its climate goals and avoid the worst impacts of global warming.
The expansion of natural-gas production should be consistent with four key principles designed to protect public health, the climate, the middle class, and our overall economy. We recommend federal and state policies that will help to realize them.
- There needs to be a swift transition from coal to a zero-carbon future by ensuring that the use of natural gas, particularly in the electric-power sector, peaks within the next 7 years to 17 years.
- The natural-gas expansion must be managed in an environmentally sustainable manner.
- The expansion of natural gas should be used to create dedicated revenues to support aggressive investments in research, development, and deployment of clean energy technologies; aggressive investments in energy efficiency; and investments in the resilience of communities threatened by climate-related extreme weather. That is, the expansion of natural gas should be used to create a financial bridge to a zero-carbon economy and climate stabilization.
- Measures should be adopted to protect middle-class families and manufacturing companies from any price increases that may result from liquefied natural gas, or LNG, exports.
This report covers some background information about natural gas and climate stabilization and articulates detailed policy proposals that meet the above principles.
Darryl Banks is Vice President for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress. Gwynne Taraska is a visiting Research Associate for Energy and Environment at the Center.