Don’t rule out natural gas in the clean-energy transition, trade group says
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Existing infrastructure can be an at-the-ready, cost-effective avenue to net-zero emissions, American Gas Association argues in new report
The U.S. will need its domestic natural gas industry and its ready-made pipeline infrastructure to ease the nation toward net-zero emissions, the American Gas Association argues.
The group, which represents the energy companies that deliver natural gas, has issued a new study it says makes the case. The report lays out several pathways from maintaining the status quo to hitting net-zero total emissions by 2050, and the role natural gas can play in getting there.
The study concluded that gas utilities have been upgraded enough that methane emissions have dropped 69% since 1990. Methane, which leaks both at the point of capture and when gas is burned, is a shorter-lived but more-potent pollutant than carbon. The U.S. has joined a global effort to curb methane emissions.
The AGA report also leveraged data showing that improvements in gas efficiency have reduced residential emissions per customer by 47% since 1971. Relatively low-cost natural gasNG00, tapped in large part from domestic fracking, has all but replaced higher-polluting coal in running the nation’s electrical grid.
But most claims by the fossil-fuel industry in joining the climate-change fight are met with degrees of skepticism.
Environmental groups and some lawmakers worry these producers, the utilities themselves, and the trade groups that support them, won’t move fast enough to meet ambitious goals, such as the Paris climate pact’s aim to contain global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and the Biden administration’s pledge to halve U.S. emissions by the end of this decade, on the way to net zero by 2050. Pledges to hit net zero by 2050 are also driving business decisions at major corporations, from technology to retail to shipping.
A U.N.-backed team of researchers found that the world was on track to produce 70% more natural gas in 2030 than would be compatible with the Paris goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“Most of the new gas production isn’t supplanting coal — it’s supplementing it. It’s answering demand for new energy,” Rob Jackson, a professor at Stanford University who chairs the Global Carbon Project, a group of scientists that tracks greenhouse gas emissions, has said.
It’s just this growth and demand that leaves AGA and its members suggesting that consumers are best served with a range of energy and power choices. The industry added nearly 900,000 new residential customers in the U.S. between 2019-2020, the largest increase since 2006. Some 21,000 new business customers come on board each year, industry data show.
AGA and others have also stressed that until solar, windICLN and other sources make up a larger share of electrical power, natural gas has a vital role. For instance, even overhauling domestic energy use by replacing natural gas-fired heating with electrified heating, heat pumps in particular, could put too much stress on the grid.
Natural gas would be needed as the grid is tested, they say. Heat pump conversions are a strategy that several California cities and some states are pursuing. Heat pumps for home upgrades could be backed by pending federal incentives.
The group, in its report, is also pushing natural gas-powered heat pumps in homes, not their electric counterparts, which can be more efficient than furnaces and more reliable depending on how cold temperatures get in a particular region.
Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, was testifying on Capitol Hill Tuesday to a Democrat-led committee hearing on the role of fossil fuel companies in mitigating climate change. The hearing drew attention in part for the lack of industry representation, with board members delaying their participation after oil and gas executives faced a grilling, and comparison to “tobacco-risk denials,” at an earlier hearing.
“Natural gas is a fossil fuel,” Mann testified Tuesday. “When you burn it, it generates carbon pollution — maybe somewhat less than when you burn coal, but at the same time, the process of extracting natural gas from the ground …hydraulic fracturing or fracking, releases what we call fugitive methane.”
“Natural gas is mostly methane,” he added. “It releases that into the atmosphere, and methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide on the relevant timescales of one or two decades, and so there is no reason to believe that natural gas is any more climate-friendly than other fossil fuels — and investing in natural gas is crowding out investment in true clean, renewable energy that can help us decarbonize our economy and address the climate crisis.”
The AGA stressed the importance of keeping up maintenance and spending on the infrastructure already in place. Utilities can use existing pipelines to transport other low-carbon gas, such as hydrogen, they said.
“Our industry is proud that we have made significant progress on the climate-change commitments made two years ago,” said Kim Greene, CEO at Southern Co.SO , a holding company that sells wholesale natural gas, electricity and renewables.
“We knew then what we know now: Climate change is a defining challenge across the globe, and this industry and natural gas are part of the solution. That’s why we’re investing $95 million every day in infrastructure upgrades,” Greene said.
The AGA report also argues that improvements in natural gas efficiency and the growth of renewable energy have led to energy-related carbon dioxide emissions hitting 30-year lows.
The gas and gas-utility industry has also launched a $125 million research initiative to drive innovation and deploy next generation technologies, including renewable natural gas and hydrogen; officials later said Tuesday that hydrogen, whose broad use still requires greater scalability, will factor into the mix closer to the 2050 mark.
And the report stressed that there are nearly 500 renewable natural gas facilities in operation or planned in North America: 200 in operation today the U.S., 155 under construction, and 103 more planned across the U.S. and Canada.
“To meet our nation’s environmental goals, we must ensure we align rules and regulations with investment opportunities to accelerate innovative technologies and fuels,” said AGA President and CEO Karen Harbert. “All sectors of the economy must play a role, and all emissions reduction options should be on the table to help ensure the broad availability of cost-effective and flexible solutions.”