There’s an Elephant in the Room and It Smells Like Natural Gas

, Senior Energy analyst | May 18, 2017, 12:55 pm EDT
Bookmark and Share

A curious thing happened in the aftermath of President Trump attempting to sign away the past eight years of work on climate and clean energy: the public face of progress didn’t flinch. From north to south and east to west, utilities and businesses and states and cities swore their decarbonization compasses were unswerving; yes, they said, we’re still closing coal plants, and yes, yes!, we’re still building ever more wind and solar—it just makes sense.

But here’s why all the subsequent commentary reiterating the inevitability of coal’s decline and cheering the unsinkable strength of renewables’ rise was right in facts, but incomplete in message:

Coal is closing. Renewables are rising. But right now, we need to be talking about natural gas.

We’re fine without a map…

President Trump accompanied his signature on the Executive Order on Energy Independence with a vow that the order would put the coal industry “back to work.” But  shortly thereafter, even those in the business reported they weren’t banking on a turn-around. Coal plants just keep shutting down:

This map shows coal units that have retired just between 2007 and 2016—many more have been announced for closure in the near future.

At the same time, renewable resources have been absolutely blowing the wheels off expectations and projections, with costs plummeting and deployment surging. The renewable energy transformation is just that—a power sector transformation—and it certainly appears there’s no going back:

Wind and solar capacity has been growing rapidly since the early 2000s.

Now when you put these two trajectories together, you end up with an electric power sector that has, in recent years, steadily reduced its carbon dioxide emissions:

Three positive charts, and three tremendous reasons to cheer (which we do a lot, and won’t soon stop—clean energy momentum is real and it’s rolling). The problem is, these charts only capture part of the energy sector story.

What’s missing? Natural gas. Or, what is now the largest—and still growing—source of carbon emissions in the energy sector.

…Until we finally realize we’re lost

There are two phases to climate change emissions reductions conversations. In Phase 1, we acknowledge that a problem exists, we recognize we’re a big reason for that problem, and we take action to initiate change. With the exception of just a few of the most powerful people in our government (ohthem), we seem to have Phase 1 pretty well in hand. Cue the stories about the triumphant resilience of our climate resolve.

The trouble is Phase 2.

In Phase 2, we move to specifics. Namely, specifics about what the waypoints are, and by when we need to reach them. This is the conversation that produces glum replies—and it’s the source of those weighty, distraught affairs scattered among the buoyant takes on the recent executive order—because the truth is:

  • We know what the waypoints are,
  • We know by when we need to reach them, and
  • We know that currently, we’re not on track.

Without a map, we’re left feeling good about the (real and true) broad-brush successes of our trajectory—emissions reductions from the retirement of coal plants; technology and economic improvements accelerating the deployment of renewables—but we have no means by which to measure the adequacy of our decarbonization timeline.

As a result, we put ourselves at grave risk of failing to catch the insufficiency of any path we’re on. And right now? That risk has the potential to become reality as our nation, propelled by the anti-regulatory, pro-fossil policies of the Trump administration, lurches toward a wholesale capitulation to natural gas.

Natural gas and climate change

Last year, carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants fell 8.6 percent. But take a look at the right-hand panel in the graph below. See what’s not going down? Emissions from natural gas. In fact, carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas overtook coal emissions last year, even omitting the additional climate impacts from methane released during natural gas production and distribution.

Bridge fuel? Not so much.

There’s no sign of the trend stopping, either. Natural gas plants have been popping up all across the country, and new plants keep getting proposed—natural gas generators now comprise more than 40 percent of all electric generating capacity in the US.

Natural gas plants are located all across the country, and new projects keep getting proposed.

And all those natural gas plants mean even more gas pipelines. According to project tracking by S&P Global Market Intelligence, an additional 70 million Dth/d of gas pipeline capacity has been proposed to come online by the early 2020s (subscription). That is a lot of gas, and would require the commitment of a lot of investment dollars.

When plants are built, pipelines are laid, and dollars are committed, it becomes incredibly hard to convince regulators to force utilities to let it all go.

Still, that’s what the markets—and the climate—will demand. As a result, ratepayers may be on the hook for generators’ bad bets.

The thing is, we know today the external costs of these investments, and the tremendous risks of our growing overreliance on natural gas. So why do these assets keep getting built?

Because many of our regulators, utilities, and investors are working without a map.

Now there are a growing number of states stepping up where the federal government has faltered, and beginning to make thoughtful energy decisions based on specific visions of long-term decarbonization goals, like in California, the RGGI states, and as recently as this week, Virginia. Further, an increasing number of insightful and rigorous theoretical maps are being developed, like the US Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization, amongst many others (UCS included).

But for the vast majority of the country, the main maps upon which decarbonization pathways were beginning to be based—the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Climate Agreement—are both at immediate risk of losing their status as guiding lights here in the US, sitting as they are beneath the looming specter of the Trump administration’s war on facts.

Plotting a course to a better tomorrow

So where to from here? Ultimately, there is far too much at stake for us to simply hope we’re heading down the right path. Instead, we need to be charting our course to the future based on all of the relevant information, not just some of it.

To start, we recommend policies that include:

  • Moving forward with implementation of the Clean Power Plan, a strong and scientifically rigorous federal carbon standard for power plants.
  • Developing, supporting, and strengthening state and federal clean energy policies, including renewable electricity standards, energy efficiency standards, carbon pricing programs, and investment in the research, development, and deployment of clean energy technologies.
  • Defending and maintaining regulations for fugitive methane emissions, and mitigating the potential public health and safety risks associated with natural gas production and distribution.
  • Improving grid operation and resource planning such that the full value and contributions of renewable resources, energy efficiency, and demand management are recognized, facilitated, and supported.

We need to show that where we’re currently heading isn’t where we want to be.

We need to talk about natural gas.


Correction, Friday June 2nd, 2017: Natural gas is now the largest source of carbon emissions in the energy sector overall, not the electric power sector as previously stated.  

U.S. EIA, Generator Monthly

Posted in: Energy, Global Warming

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments

Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • Joe Aiken

    You may have identified ‘an elephant in the room’, but missed the fact that this is not a room, it is the equivalent of a Star Trek holo-deck, a short-term illusion requiring a lot of energy to create and maintain.

    The reality is that the sustainable global population without using fossil fuels of any kind is currently estimated to be less than 2 billion (based on the global average standard of living), so the extra 5 billion that exist now can only be sustained using fossil fuels. Note that the sustainable population drops to 1.7 billion for a current western-style standard of living. However, using fossil fuels has a detrimental impact on the climate and erodes the ability of the Earth to support such numbers.

    Will changing to gas make a difference? – I don’t think that it will be significant if we don’t solve the main problem..
    Will going 100% renewable help? – probably, but in the short-term changing infrastructure demands increased energy
    Will it help to change agriculture to grow non-food products, e.g. bio-fuels or other uses (palm oil) from the remaining arable land)? – I can’t see how it can do anything but make the problem worse
    Will techniques to remove CO2 from the air and put the carbon back into the ground help? – these techniques use energy produced by the creation of CO2, deceasing the overall efficiency of the energy production process.
    Will we be able to solve this by using more energy-hungry technology? – Miracles do happen but ….. , ‘God helps those who help themselves’ so in the meantime don’t make the problem worse.

    If you are keen to do your bit now for future long-term sustainability, then I suggest that you:
    1) Reduce your dependence on technology and its growing energy demands – go and live your life,
    2) Reduce your dependence on the type of food & drink that requires significant ‘fossil’ energy to get to you – grow/make your own
    3) Make the greatest single contribution that any individual can make at this time – don’t contribute to the increasing energy demand of a growing (and less-sustainable) population – don’t have children.

  • JoeJoe

    You can call it an elephant or whatever you like but gas is many times cleaner than coal. People get stuck on CO2 or GWp but there are other byproducts of coal combustion that are many times more insidious. These byproducts have been implicated in low birth weight, lowered IQ and dementia.

    Here’s an idea… What if we only burned things like bio-gas and landfill gas in our gas plants? Would this activity be ok with you?

  • Ted Fristrom

    I was curious about where the stats on carbon emissions associated with natural gas production comes from. I’m assuming there’s a drop in carbon emissions at the power plant level where gas has been swapped out for coal, so are the measurements there being taken from the drilling sites? I am pleased to see that power companies aren’t returning to coal, but my concern is what the current administration is going to do about exporting fuels. Coal is obviously easier to transport if it’s not being used at home, but even under previous administration there was a lot of talk about creating LNG facilities for transporting natural gas to other countries.

    • Julie McNamara

      Good questions. To the first point, yes, the carbon emissions from coal combustion are indeed higher than natural gas. In the power sector, though, because more and more natural gas is being burned for electricity, total carbon emissions attributed to natural gas are on the rise (while total coal emissions are rapidly falling). But what we’re also looking at here is an uptick in use of natural gas for not just power generation, but also for energy use in the industrial, commercial, and residential sectors. Together, these trends have resulted in rapidly increasing total energy-related carbon emissions from natural gas.

      As to the second question, absolutely. Climate change is a global problem requiring global solutions. That’s what makes the Paris Agreement so incredibly important: it provides a framework by which all countries can consider their future emissions trajectories. And just as in the piece up above, it takes a comprehensive approach to sufficiently manage fossil fuel investments and end points over the long term.

  • solodoctor

    I agree that we DO need to get our elected reps in DC and in many more states around the country getting more engaged with the need to spur much more use of renewables and less reliance on nat gas. I have encouraged my reps to do this. Have other members. Will UCS spearhead a campaign to resist the Trump administration’s live affair with fossil fuels?

    • Julie McNamara

      We definitely agree that this is an issue that must be tackled at both the state and federal levels. At the federal level, we stand in strong defense of the federal carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants, funding and programmatic support for renewables and energy efficiency, and regulations working to control emissions from oil and gas production and distribution (among many other policies).
      A lot of the immediate decisions are taking place at the state level, though, and we’re engaging with regulators in different states around the country to keep highlighting the risks and vulnerabilities of an overreliance on natural gas, and ensuring that renewable resources and energy efficiency are given a fair shake in the resource-planning process, as far too often they’re discounted by utilities and regulators.
      This all feeds into the fact that at both levels, one of the most critical steps we can take is work to ensure that decisions are being evaluated with a full picture of the long-term view in mind.

      • JRT256

        I read your reply as a retired electronic engineer and it is painfully obvious to me that you are not an energy analyst but just another naive and ignorant Green that doesn’t know what she is talking about.

        You say that you support the Carbon “pollution” standards for new power plants. I presume that you mean EPA regulations that have not yet passed a court test which would simply OUTLAW new coal-fired power plants. If that includes the Obama Clean Power Plant then it includes regulations which would require some coal-fired power plants to shut down. There is not way to reduce the Carbon “pollution” from a power plant which burns coal except to stop burning coal in it.

        There is a fact based debate over whether controlling Methane emissions from natural gas production and distribution will really make a significant difference in Climate Change or if it will just increase costs. Perhaps that was the intention of the Obama EPA (to increase costs).

        You appear to have a total lack of understanding of the relationship between (new CCGT) natural gas power plants and so-called renewables (wind and solar PV). Your comments are in the context that it is an either or question — that you believe in the Green fairy tale of 100% renewables although that is not possible with current technology. The scientific, technical, and engineering facts are that this is not an either or question. With very little storage available and battery technology still much too expensive, wind and solar PV require 100% natural gas or hydroelectric (including pumped storage) backup. This is mostly natural gas. So, the more we replace coal, which is not suitable for backup for wind and solar PV, with new (CCGT) natural gas, the more power we have on the grid that can load follow — that can be turned down instantly — when wind or solar PV power is available.

        Natural gas is not a competitor of wind and solar PV, it is currently necessary to back them up on the grid. It is basically their friend. It is clear that we STILL need to talk about natural gas and how it works with wind and solar PV to reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions as a replacement for coal.

        Of course, the ultimate replacement for coal is nuclear power. However, that requires a considerably larger investment than a new CCGT natural gas plant. And, currently natural gas is cheap, although that won’t last forever. So, we do need to keep the long view in mind and install some nuclear power because we won’t have cheap natural gas forever and it does emit some Carbon Dioxide even though it is up to 75% less than coal.