Natural Gas Alone Can’t Solve Global Warming

President Obama says we can use natural gas to help solve the climate crisis. Multiple scientists say otherwise.

The arguments have been made over and over again. Yes, natural gas burns much cleaner than coal and diesel, but there is such a high rate of methane leakage from natural gas operations that, in some cases, the climate change benefits of using natural gas are negligible. Natural gas is abundant and cheap, but those very qualities are projected to cause people to use more electricity, therefore burning more carbon-based fuel. If natural gas were replacing only coal, that might be okay — but scientists note that cheap natural gas discourages competition from companies that produce solar and wind power, which are much better alternatives when it comes to fighting climate change.

None of those arguments are news. What is news is a new study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday that basically confirms all those things: That natural gas-focused policies will prevent renewable energy deployment; will cause people to use more electricity; and will cause more leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The only way natural gas can help combat climate change, the study says, is if there are policies in place to prevent those secondary effects.

“When we looked at it, abundant gas is not going to solve the climate change problem on its own without accompanying climate policies,” Haewon McJeon, a staff scientist at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and lead author of the study, told Discovery News.

McJeon’s study doesn’t endorse any specific climate policy. However, as Discovery points out, it implies that more needs to be done to help renewable energy producers compete with natural gas producers to ensure that clean energy can still be part of the United States’ energy mix. Apart from a price on carbon, one of the more obvious ways to do that would be to offer government subsidies, in the form of tax breaks or otherwise, to renewable energy producers.

Fossil fuel companies have historically benefited from a wealth of federal government help. According to a 2011 report from DBL investors, oil, coal, gas and nuclear companies have received approximately $630 billion in U.S. government subsidies, while wind, solar, and other renewable sectors have only received a total of roughly $50 billion. That’s largely because oil and gas industries have been receiving subsidies for more than 60 years, while the practice of giving government money to renewable industries is relatively new. And subsidies to renewable industries have been happening more — In 2011, the Congressional Budget Office reported giving $16 billion in federal support to clean energy and energy efficiency, while only giving the fossil-fuel industry received $2.5 billion.

The investments seem to be working, at least as documented by the Solar Energy Industries Association and the American Wind Energy Association. Those industry groups report dramatic cost reductions in deploying wind and solar since the 1970s, with the average price of a solar panel declining 47 percent since the beginning of 2011 and wind energy prices falling over 90 percent since federal incentives for wind began in the 1980s.

However, Congress recently declined to renew those federal incentives that have helped wind power thrive over the years. Specifically, it has refused to revive the Wind Production Tax Credit (PTC) — a $13 billion yearly tax break to the wind industry that has historically helped them compete with fossil fuels. The PTC for wind is a subsidy that’s been built into the tax code for years to encourage growth in the wind industry, but expired on January 1, 2014 due to Congressional gridlock.

Projections for how much wind capacity will be added to the U.S. electric grid by 2016 vary greatly depending on whether Congress renews the PTC or not. If Congress does decide to renew it, the U.S. Department of Energy predicts that wind capacity will continue to be added to the grid. If not, it will likely drop off, in part due to competition from the gas industry.