Catalyst Summer 2014


Natural Gas: A Risky Proposition

Switching from one fossil fuel to another isn’t the answer.

By Megan Rising

If you’ve seen or heard a natural gas commercial, it likely painted a rosy picture of the fuel's role in a clean energy future. Natural gas does emit approximately half the heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of coal per unit of electricity generated, but moving to a natural gas–dominated electricity system would still be a recipe for disaster from a climate perspective.

Why? For one thing, the production and distribution of natural gas results in the leakage of methane, which is 34 times stronger than CO2 at trapping heat over a 100-year period. This leakage amounts to an estimated 1 to 9 percent of total natural gas production, which reduces—or, at higher percentages, even negates—the potential climate advantage natural gas has over coal. Even if we were able to completely eliminate methane leakage, UCS analysis shows that a natural gas–dominated electricity system would generate up to three times the level of CO2 emissions we need to achieve in order to limit some of the worst consequences of climate change (see the graphic below).

Transitioning to an electricity system dominated by natural gas instead of coal would not meet U.S. climate goals. Heat-trapping emissions would barely change from where they are today, largely due to projected increases in electricity demand. Learn about cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternatives.

Instead of locking ourselves into many more decades of high global warming emissions, we should reduce electricity demand through energy efficiency, and meet the remaining demand with renewable energy, which generates little to no global warming emissions while providing significant health and economic benefits. When investing our energy dollars, let’s make climate-smart decisions that move us toward a truly clean future.

Megan Rising is energy campaign manager at UCS.