Report sees gas as near-term, but far from only, GHG control option

Using more natural gas could help reduce US greenhouse gas emissions in the near to medium term, but deeper long-term reductions will require broader deployment of other low-carbon energy sources as well, a new Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) report concluded.

“The natural gas boom can help the economy grow while shrinking our carbon footprint, and there’s much greater potential on both fronts,” said Eileen Claussen, president of C2ES, the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

“But we need a diverse energy supply,” she continued at a June 4 seminar where the report was released. “Gas is not carbon-free, and we can’t let it crowd out nuclear and renewables. It’s also critical that we do a better job of measuring and minimizing methane releases.”

The report, “Leveraging Natural Gas to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” noted that steps need to be taken through the gas supply, transmission, and distribution system to reduce leaks of methane, the fuel’s principal component and a potent GHG.

It also underscored the need for wind, solar, nuclear, and other zero-carbon energy sources, and for carbon capture and storage technologies, to achieve the deeper necessary long-term emissions cuts.

C2ES said the report used the findings from a series of background papers and workshops in Houston and Boston attended by several dozen experts and representatives of industry, environmental organizations, and state agencies. It was funded in part by grants from the American Gas Association and the Clean Skies Foundation.

Opportunities, challenges

The report said opportunities created by growing gas use include less reliance on petroleum if LNG and compressed natural gas are used more widely in motor vehicle fleets and heavy-duty trucks. Manufacturing efficiency would increase by using gas in combined heat-and-power (formerly known as cogeneration) systems, it suggested.

Challenges include funding expensive infrastructure to deliver gas to more homes and businesses; ensuring that gas complements—but doesn’t crowd out–other low carbon energy options; and identifying and addressing methane leaks during gas production, transmission, and distribution, the report indicated.

It said possible next steps include encouraging innovative funding models and incentives to extend gas pipelines to consumers and promote on-site power generation; informing manufacturers about the increased efficiency and resilience of combined heat and power systems; and helping state regulatory commissions overcome perceived conflicts between utilities and CHP operations, and address high gas transmission and distribution infrastructure expansion costs.

Economics driven by consumer demand are more effective than government mandates in achieving effective results, two members of the first panel at the report’s presentation agreed.

“You have to be careful,” warned Thomas F. Farrell II, chief executive of Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Resources Inc. “When government becomes involved and creates incentives, unintended consequences result.” At the very least, the public will need to recognize that using more renewable sources to generate electricity will lead to higher costs, he said.

AGA Pres. David K. McCurdy, who served 7 terms in the US House, noted that as a member of its Science, Space, and Technology Committee, he learned that government can play a necessary basic research role, but needs to do so wisely. “We need many more business and environmental groups involved in the research conversation,” he suggested.

Snapshot policies

“We’ve used the federal tax code as a substitute energy policy, which is why it’s riddled with exemptions,” McCurdy continued. “Don’t get me started on biofuels, because those are agricultural policies which looked good at the time, but were only a snapshot and not the big picture.

“This period of fiscal austerity which has made government subsidies pretty much extinct may be our chance to step back, examine our goals, and decide what mixture of energy sources will do the best job of getting us there,” he said.

Substantial investments, “and $25 million would be a drop in the bucket,” at universities to seed basic research into new technologies and process would be a good starting point, he said.

R. Darryl Banks, vice-president for energy policy at the Center for American Progress, said this would be a good opportunity for a private-public partnership, adding: “It shouldn’t be a stark choice of this versus renewables. I think there’s room for both on the table.” It’s also important to ask tough economic questions about projects’ life-cycle impacts, which will require solid engineering and measurement information that doesn’t exist yet, he said.

“Some people say we don’t have an energy policy in this country, which isn’t true,” observed Branko Terzik, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions, who was part of a second panel. “We let the market set the prices. If government tries to intervene, as it did with interstate gas prices from the 1950s to the ‘80s, it distorts the market.

“Government has a role in setting environmental and efficiency goals,” he said. “The market provides the best means for meeting them.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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