Natural gas is better than many environmentalists admit
The fundamental problem is that, at current margins, natural gas is a better option than many environmentalists would like to admit. This is not because the gas itself is clean (although it is cleaner than coal and oil), but because it complements renewable wind and solar power well. Advancement in technology has made these power sources cheap on a per kilowatt hour basis – when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and when the panels or turbines are optimally placed for the sun or the wind.
Gasworks have the practical property of being easy to turn on and off. Thus, a network with lots of gas can run mainly from wind and sun, with gas supplied on calm or cloudy days to ensure reliability. This mix of cheaper-than-ever renewables with cheap gas has helped dramatically reduce US CO2 emissions over the past 15 years, helping shut down many coal-fired power plants and making the air much cleaner.
But the world is not yet done with coal and oil. The United States still has more than 200 coal-fired power plants. Oil is widely used to keep homes warm in the northeast. And beyond US borders, Europeans are actually reopening coal-fired power plants as Russia cuts natural gas supplies. Increasing the supply flow from the Marcellus shale to the northeast, as well as using LNG terminals on the Atlantic coast to ship gas to Europe, will make the energy mix cleaner, not dirtier .
This is mostly a side effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the geopolitical angle is exactly what makes tackling climate change through supply-side restrictions so misguided.
Since pollution is really, really bad – both in terms of its impact on the global climate and the localized impact of airborne particles – it’s often true that limiting fossil fuel consumption is worth it. This is true whether it is done through a formal pricing mechanism such as a carbon tax, or through something like the EPA’s air quality authority, under which the new rules are subject to a cost-benefit analysis.
Under normal circumstances, however, blocking a cubic meter of gas production does not reduce the consumption of a cubic meter, as much of the lost gas is simply obtained from another, slightly more expensive source. Thus, the national economy ends up paying a high price in lost production in exchange for a tiny reduction in pollution. Meanwhile, bad actors like Russia are gaining revenue and leverage.
Environmentalists will rightly say that to meet global emissions goals, the world must eventually move to zero or even negative emissions, which is incompatible with current natural gas infrastructure. But the painful truth is that there is not yet the technical capacity to do so in a way that is compatible with continued global economic growth.
What does exist, fortunately, is technology that can generate very large emission reductions. This means replacing virtually all current use of liquid fossil fuels with electricity while simultaneously eliminating all use of coal and oil to generate electricity. Replacing coal-fired power plants and gasoline-powered cars with renewable energy – backed by gas – is both economically feasible and environmentally beneficial. Some places even have enough hydroelectric resources to be able to do without gas entirely and build a truly carbon-free grid.
For most of the world, however, reaching zero emissions will require a technological breakthrough. That could mean advanced nuclear (which I’m excited about, because it’s compact and can go anywhere), or it could mean better batteries and long-term electrical storage (which many environmentalists are excited about). Advanced geothermal energy could do the trick. It’s also possible that the fossil fuel industry’s bet on carbon capture and sequestration will come to fruition and the world could continue to burn gas.
Proponents of these rival technologies like to argue over which of them is genuinely promising and which is vaporware. That is why it makes sense for the Inflation Reduction Act to provide financial support to all of them. It also explains why some people have chosen this moment to criticize a pipeline.
Investing in the development of technologies that could make gas obsolete is good. The same goes for the regulation of gas consumption to take account of its pollution externalities. But the withdrawal of Russian gas from world markets has made it harder for the world to meet its climate goals – and has shown that the practical environmental impact of the gas is less than many feared: with today’s technology , in today’s global economy, more gas means less emissions, not more. This is why a pipeline absolutely belongs in a climate bill.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• The new in energy is the old pipes: Liam Denning
• When energy pipelines are political, everyone suffers: Julian Lee
• Europe’s natural gas crisis is worse than it looks: Javier Blas
• Making natural gas a (shorter) bridge to the future: publishers
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Co-founder and former columnist of Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is the author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans”.
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