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US natural gas guzzling ‘must peak’ by 2030 – report

Gas consumption cannot be allowed to go on indefinitely if US is committed to cutting emissions 43% on 2005 levels

Displacing coal with cheap gas works for the short term, but what about the future? (Source: Doug Waldron)

By Nilima Choudhury

The US will blow its climate targets if its use of natural gas does not peak within the next 17 years, an influential Washington think tank warns.

A new report by the Center for American Progress acknowledges the short term emission reduction benefits of natural gas compared to coal, but says future expansion needs to be regulated.

And it claims that the Obama Administration’s current target of a 42% economy-wide emission reduction by 2030 on 2005 levels is now at risk.

“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-stabilisation targets,” said the report.

“Failure to stabilise 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.”

The report’s authors also argue US legislators need to include the cost of climate-related extreme weather events when making decisions on future energy sources.

“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,” they say, citing the ongoing US drought and Supertstorm Sandy in 2012.

Gas investment

This report is likely to be controversial given the dramatic emission reductions the US has achieved through its switch from coal to gas-fired electricity generation. This has enabled the USA to meet its pledge to cut emissions 17% by 2020 on 2005 levels.

Recent advancements in fracking technology have resulted in a boom in the production and consumption of natural gas, allowing the US to benefit from cheap and domestically-sourced clean energy, although as the CAP report makes clear, prices are rising from a 2012 low.

According to data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the production of dry natural gas in the United States increased 33% between 2005 and 2012, and the consumption of natural gas in the US increased 16% during the same period.

“This raises important policy questions, as the operational lifespans of new gas-fired power plants contemplated today by utility companies are likely to extend beyond the peak period of when fossil-fuel combustion for electricity must decline,” say the report’s authors.

They add that: “any long-term expansion and dependence on natural gas for electricity generation is incompatible with climate-stabilization targets because it also results in carbon pollution, although less than coal.”

International Energy Agency (IEA) data suggests US needs to invest roughly US$2.3 trillion of cumulative investment in the US power sector, including over US$1 trillion for transmission and distribution.

Politics

Slashing levels of gas consumption and production is likely to cost an Administration significant political capital.

This week sixteen of the 29 states with renewable portfolio standards proposed legislation that would reduce the need for wind and solar power, according to researchers backed by the US Energy Department.

“We’re opposed to these mandates, and 2013 will be the most active year ever in terms of efforts to repeal them,” said Todd Wynn, task force director for energy of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or Alec, a lobby group pushing for the change.

“Natural gas is a clean fuel, and regulators and policy makers are seeing how it’s much more affordable than renewable energy.”

David Glickson, National Renewable Energy Laboratories’ spokesman told RTCC that the gas market remains volatile, despite current low prices.

“The cost for renewables continues to come down as technology improves and deployment widens,” he said.

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