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An Energy Bridge to Nowhere: The U.S. is Forging ‘Ahead’ with Natural Gas

Despite his promises, Trump has not been able to save coal for West Virginia and American coal country.  Instead, coal-fired plants are moving towards natural gas as a purported sustainable alternative. However, while the replacement of coal in the United States with natural gas may appear to be a boon to the climate, reality shows that supposedly “clean burning” natural gas is committing the country yet again to carbon based economy that the climate simply cannot afford. In 2010 the United States had 580 coal-fired power plants; by March of 2018 that number had dropped to 350.  

Yet power-sector emissions rose 3.4% the same year, according to independent research provider the Rhodium Group.  While cheap natural gas has been put forward as a less carbon-intensive fuel than coal, a closer look at the production of natural gas undermines this claim.  This trend bodes poorly for carbon emissions, as increasing natural gas generation is doing more harm than good in offsetting the emissions reductions associated with coal plant retirements. 

As part of its extensive rollbacks of regulations fighting climate change, the Trump administration’s anticipated withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and elimination of Obama’s Clean Power Plan are blatant steps in the wrong direction for the future of U.S. climate action.  Trump is removing parameters that would have required oil and gas producers to aggressively detect leaks, meet EPA standards, and curb emissions. Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule is promoting investment for existing power plants, committing the U.S. to its pre-existing carbon-based economy, and failing to invest in actual clean energy options.    

Trump’s EPA is regulating carbon not because it wants to, but rather because it has to; an Endangerment Finding in 2009 connected public health risks to greenhouse gases.  Despite his attacks on climate science, this health report required that President Trump replace Obama’s Clean Power Plan, not just cancel it.  It is hardly a surprise that President Trump’s replacement climate plan the ACE, is disinclined towards radical decarbonization efforts. Its passive investment in energy companies demonstrates a profound apathy towards climate action.  The ACE gives states flexibility, not mandates, in their approach to emission reduction. It favors cost effective solutions and marginal decarbonization efforts, allowing companies the ability to switch to and invest in natural gas under what  Trump’s EPA deems “regulations.” 

As an infrastructure plan, ACE only applies to individual coal and natural gas plants   It lets individual states decide how much carbon reduction they consider feasible and reasonable, as long as they submit emission reports to the EPA within the next three years.  It posits that efficiency upgrades in the form of heat rate improvements (HRI) will better the plants’ emission performance. The structural upgrades encouraged by the ACE make these plants cheaper and more efficient to run, allowing them to operate longer and actually increase the amount of emissions generated overtime. And while the ACE is a climate action plan, it relinquishes the responsibility of the federal government to set carbon reduction standards.   

Companies base their ACE progress reports on carbon dioxide, despite that it is not the only harmful greenhouse gas released by power plants; methane’s global warming impact is nearly 25 times greater than CO2. According to the National Energy Technology Laboratory, an efficient natural gas power plant emits 50% less CO2­­ during combustion compared to a standard coal power plant.  However, methane leakage is a massive, and often overlooked product of natural gas generation that calls into question natural gas’ function as an emissions reducing fuel.  

In a recent report the API boasted a nearly 60% reduction in methane emission in the United States between 2011 and 2017 in the nation’s largest natural gas producing regions .  However, in 2017 fossil fuel corporations like Exxon Mobil and BP contributed to a surge in venting and flaring at natural gas plants, bringing an end to several years of apparent improvement in emissions reductions during America’s shift away from coal. 

Flaring is an energy-wasting practice that constitutes the intentional burning of natural gas when companies drill faster than pipelines can isolate energy.  In 2018, Exxon flared 70% more gas than it had in the previous year, while BP burned off 17% of the gas it produced in the Permian between April and June of this year.  Last year it only burned 10%. More than 320 million cubic feet of gas was flared or vented last year across three basins, and these practices continue to emit detrimental levels of CO2 and  methane, a greenhouse gas with 120 times more heat-trapping capacity than CO2.  

Drilling, extracting, and transporting natural gas in pipelines creates methane leakage, and  the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that these emissions, “range from 1-9% of total life cycle emissions [of natural gas],” meaning that these leaks are far from negligible in comparison to the other emissions involved in producing and burning gas.  1 to 9 percent is an extremely wide and dangerous margin; methane leakage before natural gas reaches the consumer must remain below 3.2% in order for it to have lower life-cycle emissions than coal. In the wake of these studies, the claims that natural gas is leading enormous emissions reduction progress from the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon, and other fossil fuel corporations are moot.

The United States is running out of time, and its attitudes towards climate policy in the next decade are undeniably crucial.  In order to remain below 1.5 °C warming and avoid catastrophic climate change, the U.S. has to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.  Corporate America, on the other hand, sees natural gas sticking with us for at least the next 30.  The ACE, in promoting individual plants with investments, argues that better natural gas infrastructure will, in time, reduce methane leakage.  These investments negate claims to natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ to a clean energy economy, and the dangerous rhetoric of justification, in reality, commits the U.S. to a carbon-based economy in the future.

The research behind natural gas shows that it will not reduce American emissions in any way necessary to avoid climate catastrophe, which exposes Trump’s ACE as completely inconsequential, if not inherently debilitating, in its oversight. By encouraging  power plant infrastructure improvements, the ACE promotes a future of carbon and methane emissions rather than a transition to clean energy that the Clean Power Plan advocated. Natural gas is not a sustainable solution to coal; its extraction is dangerous, methane leaks occur at every step of production, and it poses extreme threats to public health.  Solar, wind, and other alternatives have been left out of the federal approach to climate policy, and the U.S. is purporting natural gas as a teetering bridge to nowhere.