Navigant Research Blog

Should We Worry About Carbon Dioxide Emissions From Natural Gas Surpassing Coal?

Angelo Lan — September 13, 2016

Smoke StacksAccording to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2016, CO2 emissions from natural gas are expected to surpass coal emissions in the United States for the first time since 1972. As CO2 emissions from natural gas increase due to growing natural gas consumption in the energy sector, major concerns have developed among environmental groups and others about natural gas becoming a threat to climate change. However, to generate the same amount of power, natural gas emits only 55% of the CO2 compared to coal. As natural gas displaces coal, CO2 emissions that could have come from coal will be cut by half. As long as the growth of natural gas is at the expense of coal consumption, it will help the fight against climate change.

It would be ideal if both natural gas and coal could be replaced with renewable energy such as solar and wind. However, when the sun doesn’t shine and wind doesn’t blow, electricity still needs to be generated. Even with cutting edge technology on energy storage, demand-side management, and energy efficiency, the need for stable electricity generation from reliable sources cannot be fully eliminated. Natural gas is by far the best option for such a reliable source due to its affordability and abundance in the United States. Besides the benefit of fewer  emissions, the price of natural gas is also competitive with coal. The United States is also the largest natural gas producer in the world thanks to the boom of shale gas. In general, as more renewable generation capacity will be added than fossil fuel capacity this year (and likely in the next few years), natural gas is essential as a backstop for grid operators to address the intermittency of renewable energy.

The Problem of Methane Leakage

Nevertheless, natural gas is not perfect. The methane leakage problem could seriously undermine the climate benefit of natural gas. At the same time, the US Environmental Protection Agency is making crucial progress in setting regulations on restricting methane leakage. With proper regulatory incentives and continuing technology improvement, the effects of methane leakage can be contained to make natural gas a viable complement to a lower carbon future.

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