Natural Gas: A Bridge Too Far?

Image courtesy of Portland General Electric


By Kris FitzPatrick, Staff Editor

Many energy policy students, like myself, show up to graduate school with noble ambitions and high hopes of making our energy system "cleaner." Renewable energy sources like wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal do, in fact, hold great potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants. The trouble is that this potential will really only reach meaningful scale over the medium to long term.

As a result, we talk often of natural gas as a "bridge fuel," in that it boasts carbon emissions that are approximately 50 percent less than those of coal. If we convert much of our nation's coal-fired electricity to natural gas-fired electricity, the emissions reductions could represent significant progress in combating climate change. By going a step further and electrifying the automobile fleet to run on this gas-fired electricity, additional emissions savings can be achieved. What I learned from oil and gas industry professionals on a recent trip to Houston, however, puts a serious dent in this plan.

A representative from Royal Dutch Shell and an energy finance professional both contend that oil—and not natural gas—production is set to explode in the next ten years. A combination of high oil prices, low natural gas prices, technological breakthroughs in unconventional oil development, and soaring demand from the developing world for transportation fuel (i.e. motor vehicle gasoline) have all combined to spur tremendous research and development investment in oil production.

Natural gas will clearly play a large role in electricity production over the short to medium term. But with transportation generating well over 20 percent of global emissions, and much of the developing world striving to own a car, reducing emissions just got that much more daunting.

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