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People Are Calling Natural Gas a ‘Bridge’ to a Sustainable Future—They’re Wrong

For America to reach full renewable energy, we need to re-focus our investments — and divest ourselves of some dangerous ideas about natural gas.

By Nancy C. Loeb


Natural gas coming out of the ground in Taiwan. (Photo: Naplee12/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been a hot summer, with record-breaking heat in the United States and around the world, and the same can be said for all of 2016 so far.

According to new reports from National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Goddard Space Institute, 2016 is on course to be the hottest year on record around the globe. That makes 2016 the third year in a row to set a warming record — which should cause us grave concern. Indeed, the severe effects of climate change, including both drought and flooding in some of the poorest countries in the world, will lead to population dislocations that will likely exacerbate many of the dangerous political and social upheavals that we’re already facing.

In the face of these strong indicators of advancing climate change, the Democratic Party platform calls for a transition away from the fossil fuels and greater investment in renewable energy. The GOP platform, on the other hand, calls for new investments in fossil fuels. The Green Party promises an immediate drawdown of non-renewables.

Getting to a sustainable energy future will not be easy; the unfortunate reality is that we can’t make an overnight switch to renewables. The U.S. electricity grid is not equipped for such an immediate switch, and, while renewable technologies have advanced significantly, critical technologies, including large-scale battery storage, are not yet sufficiently advanced to replace fossil fuels completely.

Supposed “short-term” or “transitional” reliance on natural gas is a seemingly attractive option. For one thing, the U. S. has a lot of natural gas, and fracking has made it fairly easily recoverable, plentiful, and cheap. But it’s a dangerous mistake to tout natural gas as a cleaner energy source than other fossil fuels. It’s this same mistaken thinking that has people touting natural gas as a so-called “bridge” fuel, until a full transition to renewable energy sources becomes feasible.

Methane is a far more intense warming-inducing gas than the carbon emitted by coal and oil, so small releases of methane can have a disproportionately harmful effect.

Proponents argue that natural gas emits only about one-half the greenhouse emissions of coal-fired power plants. (Hillary Clinton has called natural gas “a bridge … we want to cross as quickly as possible.”) But the pro-fracking “bridge” argument doesn’t fully hold up under close scrutiny.

Natural gas is itself a fossil fuel that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), the principal driver of man-made climate change. While burning natural gas emits fewer GHGs than burning other fossil fuels like coal, we don’t know the actual extent of any advantage for natural gas from a climate perspective — and that’s because of significant but largely unmeasured releases of methane in the fracking process.

Estimates of methane leaks in the extraction and production of natural gas vary; an average estimate is that about 5 percent of methane will leak during the extraction and transportation of natural gas, although the actual amounts are likely highly dependent on the specifics of each mine and production process.

More important, methane is a far more intense warming-inducing gas than the carbon emitted by coal and oil, so relatively small releases of methane can have a disproportionately harmful effect.

Recognizing these facts, the Obama administration has proposed new regulations to limit methane gas emissions. Those regulations are under attack by the oil and gas industry, and by Republicans in Congress. In any event, we need research on actual methane emissions, as well as on ways to limit release of this methane — and to capture it.

There most likely is a near-term benefit in replacing older, inefficient coal-fired electricity plants with newer, more efficient natural gas plants. But the economic realities attached to investments in new-gas infrastructure, including wells, pipelines, and gas-fired power plants, threatens to squeeze out renewable energy sources over a prolonged period and may even raise GHG emissions over the longer term.

The history of coal is instructive if we want to understand why using natural gas as a “bridge” will set the private sector on a dangerous course.

Coal, especially in the years following the OPEC embargoes of the 1970s, became the fuel of choice to replace oil in U.S. power plants. The U.S. had a vast supply of coal and the cost was low, particularly in comparison with oil. The consequences today of replacing coal with low-priced natural gas demonstrate how hard a transition to a new fuel source can be. There are enormous costs, coal companies are going bankrupt, and jobs are being lost.

Companies are not going to make billions of dollars of investment in the infrastructure for natural gas that is expected to last about 40 years and simply walk away in five to 10 years — a five-year period is far too short for investment payback for these enormous sunk costs. To a large extent coal is being replaced by natural gas for electricity generation. But new investment in fossil fuels of any type — including natural gas — is a step in the wrong direction.

Research shows that, if we wait another 40 years for a more sizable switch to renewables, all of the GHG reduction benefits of natural gas will be lost. Indeed, even 20 years may be too long.

There is still more to do — especially in the areas of energy storage technologies and transmission infrastructure — that requires large investments, and this is where energy investment dollars should be going. For renewable energy sources like wind and solar to become the backbone of our electricity generation system, we need to be able to store the energy they generate for use when we need it. While there have been advances in storage technologies, this is a critical technology revolution we haven’t fully achieved. It’s where our investment dollars should be going.

Yes, we are reaping economic benefits from the abundant and inexpensive oil and gas we have enjoyed over the past few years. But if that’s all we do — or if we continue to invest primarily in continued fossil fuel dependence — we are only hoping for a sustainable energy future. We are not making the advances needed to assure it.