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Relying on Natural Gas as a “Bridge Fuel” is a mistake because it delays the development of renewable energy and does not reduce emissions significantly enough, says Christine Shearer, post-doctoral scholar of Earth System Science at UC Irvine

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

A recent report from the Global Carbon Project on 2013 carbon dioxide emissions found that we set a new record of 36 billion tons of CO2. The amount is predicted to increase by another 2.5 percent in 2014.

President Obama’s energy plan to reduce carbon emissions positions natural gas as the great bridge fuel, as its carbon emissions are half that of coal. Other coal still accounts for 39 percent of U.S. electricity generation. Natural gas extraction through fracking is booming, so much so that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this week approved the highly contested $3.8 billion Cove Point natural gas processing and export facility, located in the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland. This is the third such natural gas facility that the U.S. Department of Energy has approved this month.

With study after study implicating fracking for its link to earthquakes, groundwater, pollution, underestimating methane release, and even cancer and birth defects, a new economic base study has been published in the journal of Environmental Research Letters by the University of California, Irvine; Stanford University; and the Seattle-based nonprofit Near Zero. The study looks at the implications of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and whether natural gas can function as a short-term bridge as we transition to renewable energy.

With us to discuss the new study is one of its four authors, Christine Shearer. Shearer is a postdoctoral scholar in earth systems science at UC Irvine. She’s the lead author of the study “The Effect of Natural Gas Supply on U.S. Renewable Energy and CO2 Emissions”, which is a study published in the peer-reviewed journal of Environmental Research Letters.

Thank you so much for joining us, Christine.


PERIES: So, Christine, right now, 39 percent of our electricity generation comes from coal. Your study predicted that switching from coal to natural gas would not significantly reduce emissions into 2050, perhaps only by 9 percent. Why?

SHEARER: Well, we looked at the effect of different gas supplies on the U.S. electricity sector through 2050. So we looked at a high supply, where gas is relatively cheap and abundant, versus a low supply, where gas is more expensive and less abundant. And what we found is the high supply did not significantly reduce emissions.

[snip] Well, there’s a lot of debate about just how much gas there is in the U.S., and particularly how much it would cost to extract it. So what we did was a survey of different natural gas experts from different organizations, from industry, from academia, from the nonprofit sector, asking them for their estimates of just how much natural gas there is in the U.S. and at what prices it would cost to extract it. And we use our estimates to create three different levels of supply within an energy economic model called MARKAL, which is used by government agencies and other organizations to examine future electricity use in the U.S. and emissions. And so we adjusted the price of natural gas within the model to look at the effects of different gas supplies.

PERIES: What was the most effective in terms of emission reduction or–yeah, reducing carbon emissions?

SHEARER: Yeah. So we looked at the different gas supplies along four different climate policy scenarios. So one was no climate policy, one was a moderate carbon tax, one was a stringent carbon reduction of emissions, and one was a strong renewable portfolio standard. And the stringent carbon cap, just by its nature, ended up being the most effective, because it was an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. But more importantly, what we found was that the biggest driver of emission reductions was the policy and not the amount of natural gas.

PERIES: Sounds like a very basic supply-and-demand model driving prices.

SHEARER: That’s exactly what it is. It’s a supply curve. Exactly.

PERIES: Well, Christine, any last word on what you would advise President Obama to do?

SHEARER: Yeah. So one thing the EPA’s doing that is–the Environmental Protection Agency’s doing that–you know, it’s been a long time coming–is proposing reductions, greenhouse gas reductions, on new and existing power stations. And so that gives states some flexibility in how they’re going to meet emission reductions for 2030. And it looks like a lot of states are going to switch from coal plants to natural gas plants.

And I think we should be thinking about what effect that might have building up this new infrastructure–the pipelines, the gas plants–on trying to eventually make it towards longer-term greenhouse gas reductions that are needed to help avert the worst effects of climate change. And in our results, we found that gas was most effective if you combine it with a strong renewable energy mandate. So that will help minimize the competition between natural gas and renewables.

PERIES: Okay, Christine, I thank you for joining us and explaining your study to us.

SHEARER: Alright. Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Christine Shearer, PhD, is a postdoctoral scholar in Earth Systems Science at the University
of California at Irvine. Her research focuses on environmental sociology,
particularly climate change and energy. Her work has appeared in academic
and media publications including Climatic Change, Environmental Research
Letters, and the NY Times, and she is author of Kivalina: A Climate Change
(Haymarket Books, 2011).