Missing from the Climate Bills: Natural Gas Power

naturalgas2There’s a growing laundry list of complaints about the climate bills that passed the House and were introduced into the Senate this week. But here’s another very important one: the bills basically neglect to promote the use of natural gas for electricity production, points out Mark Zoback, a Geophysics professor at Stanford University, who gave a presentation at Stanford this week.

Zoback, who has given a variety of talks on natural gas before, says that newly discovered abundant sources of natural gas, combined with carbon capture and storage, could play a very significant role in fighting climate over the next several decades. As the U.S. transitions to truly clean power, he urges that incentives for natural gas — for both electricity generation and vehicle transportation — make it into the final version of the climate bill, which policy-makers will be debating over the coming months.

Yeah, we all know natural gas is a fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide, but here’s the argument: In recent years, through better technology and recovery tools, we’ve discovered that there’s an untapped natural gas resource in the shale formations in many states. The U.S. now has an estimated resource of over 2,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That’s — in a word — massive.

Zoback says the newly discovered resource will help to stabilize the price for natural gas, making it more attractive for both the gas producers and utilities (fluctuating prices has deterred more use of natural gas for power production). He pegs that price around $6 per million BTUs. That could help natural gas beat coal on price, meaning natural gas could actually be an economic replacement for coal power.

Of course, natural gas has significantly fewer carbon (and toxic) emissions than coal. Zoback says that by replacing 30 percent of coal-fired generation with gas (without CCS) it would get the U.S. almost to the point of what the current climate bills call for: a 17-20 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2020. With carbon capture technologies, gas power could cut carbon emissions even more, he says. The abundant natural gas reserves could also be used for vehicles — something T. Boone Pickens has been advocating for months.

So, why aren’t companies already doing this? First, they’re waiting for the price of natural gas to stabilize. Secondly, carbon capture technologies for both coal and natural gas are still under development (read: potentially a ways away). Natural gas shale drilling also needs to be done with the proper environmental considerations. But, as Zoback points out, if the climate bills take the opportunity to promote natural gas as a replacement for coal power, it could provide a needed bridge to truly clean power that would have zero carbon emissions.


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