The world's appetite for natural gas has dramatically increased of late spurred by the recent "shale gas revolution" in the US. This unconventional gas resource has brought about extremely low gas prices in the US, changed the dynamics of the global energy market, and spawned the desire of other nations to mimic the US's push for unconventional gas and new dry gas discoveries. As many countries move away from coal, or shutter their nuclear power plants, the global demand for gas has skyrocketed.
While a shift from coal-based energy to natural gas entails many environmental benefits, natural gas still emits carbon dioxide and the methane and other emissions from the natural gas system erode the climate benefits of fuel shifting and contribute to unhealthy air pollution. Combustion of natural gas creates carbon dioxide. In addition to the carbon dioxide, venting and leaks of unburned methane – a potent greenhouse gas - adds significantly to the overall climate change impact of the fuel. If the US were to close all of our existing coal power plants and replace them with modern NGCC, for example, we would reduce our national CO2e emissions by only about 16 percent. The climate benefit of natural gas (as compared to coal) is offset significantly by direct emissions of unburned methane released upstream of the point of end use (e.g., gas wells, pipelines, etc.). As a result, simply substituting natural gas for other fossil fuels appears unlikely to significantly reduce climate forcing.
Switching fuels does not solve the carbon dioxide emission challenge. To meet mid-century climate change targets, carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas combustion must be captured and sequestered in deep geological formations (essentially returning the carbon to the Earth's crust, from whence it came). Using carbon capture and sequestration ("CCS") technology, a natural gas power plant would emit only about 5 percent of the carbon dioxide of a new conventional coal power plant without CCS. This represents a significant emissions reduction potential.
With careful management, regulation, and technology deployment, the climate impacts of natural gas can be greatly minimized.
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