The Role of Natural Gas in Climate Change

Mallory McKnight, J.D./C.L. 2014, Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University

“The President’s Climate Action Plan”

“Climate change is no longer a distant threat.”[1] Both nationally and internationally, climate change is the most significant challenge facing the environment today.[2] In its Fourth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognized the imminent threat caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.[3] There is substantial consensus in the scientific area regarding the following: “(a) [that] the earth’s climate is changing; (b) that the changes result from human activity; (c) that the changes are happening at both a faster rate and with worse impacts than previously projected; and (d) that there is an imminent need for action.”[4]

In June of this year, in response to the threat of climate change, President Obama implemented “The President’s Climate Action Plan.”[5] The plan addresses the behavioral changes necessary for a broad cut of carbon pollution, on both the national and international levels. President Obama’s “Climate Action Plan” calls for actors at all levels of government and industry to take responsible actions, “so we leave a cleaner, more stable environment for future generations.”[6] The Plan hopes to accomplish the President’s 2009 “commitment to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.”[7]

The “Climate Action Plan” has three predominant “pillars”: (1) cut carbon pollution in America, (2) prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change, and (3) lead international efforts to combat global climate change and prepare for its impacts.[8]

With its low cost and vast resource base, natural gas has already helped the United States make progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it will continue to have a big role in the global response to climate change.[9] Thus, the natural gas industry will play a role in each pillar of the “Climate Action Plan.” In the first pillar, the natural gas industry is asked to significantly reduce methane emissions. Then, in the second pillar, it is called upon to strengthen the industry’s infrastructure so that it can withstand the impacts of climate change. Finally, in the third pillar, natural gas is called upon to play a dual role: as a short-lived climate pollutant, it must lower methane emissions, but as the cleanest fossil fuel, it will become a “bridge” fuel[10] that helps expand the use of clean energy and cut waste.

(1) Cut Carbon Pollution in America

The first pillar of “The President’s Climate Action Plan” calls for the reduction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and specifically addresses methane (CH4) gas emissions.[11]Next to carbon dioxide, methane is “the second most abundant [greenhouse gas (GHG)] accounting for 14 percent of global GHG emissions.”[12] Although carbon dioxide has a longer lifespan and is emitted in larger quantities, methane’s ability to trap heat inside earth’s atmosphere (“global warming potential”) is nearly twenty-five times greater.[13] It accounts for over one-third of the human impact on the world’s climate.[14]

Since natural gas consists primarily of methane, the natural gas industry has become an important topic in both national and international climate change discussions.[15]Since 2008, the low prices and “large growing resource base” of natural gas has led to its increased use in the United States. In 2012, natural gas production surpassed coal and more than a quarter of U.S. primary energy consumption was comprised of natural gas.[16]In 2011 alone, natural gas was the United State’s “largest anthropogenic source category of CH4 emissions.”[17] Through the first pillar of the “Climate Action Plan,” the natural gas industry is asked to help slow climate change by developing and implementing technologies that help reduce methane emissions.[18]

For the natural gas industry, the reduction of methane emissions produces two benefits: lower greenhouse gas emissions and increased volumes of clean energy. Beyond minimizing methane leaks, the implementation of “low-emission equipment and better management practices in oil and gas systems” benefits health and safety and helps get more product to the market, which in turn, generates more revenue.[19] In addition to conserving natural gas, increasing productivity, and benefiting the environment, the costs of reducing methane emissions can be recovered by the natural gas industry in a year or less.[20]

(2) Prepare the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change

The second pillar of President Obama’s “Climate Action Plan” focuses on “prepar[ing] the United States for the impacts of climate change.”[21] The plan partially focuses on assessing, and enhancing, the strength of existing infrastructure in response to drastic weather conditions brought on by climate change.[22]

Methane emissions occur during each phase of the natural gas process (production, processing, transmission, and distribution).[23] In a report for Climate Central, Eric D. Larson, PhD, recognizes the vast natural gas infrastructure in the United States, and the increased possibility for methane leaks in such an infrastructure.[24]In 2011, the U.S. system had “…more than half a million producing wells, several hundred gas processing facilities, hundreds of thousands of miles of gas transmission pipelines and integrated storage reservoirs, more than a million miles of local distribution mains, and more than 60 million service pipe connections from distribution mains to users.”[25]

Thus, the “Climate Action Plan” asks the natural gas industry to assess the durability of pipelines and other infrastructure against the threat of drastic weather that could possibly lead to exaggerated methane leaks.

(3) Lead International Efforts to Combat Global Climate Change

The third pillar of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan focuses on “lead[ing] international efforts to combat global climate change and prepare for its impacts.”[26] The Plan specifically addresses the natural gas market and its dual role in the context of climate change.

First, President Obama calls for negotiations with other countries focused on “combatting short-lived climate pollutants,” such as methane.[27] The Global Methane Initiative, which focuses on natural gas and other sectors “is a voluntary, multilateral partnership that aims to reduce global methane emissions and to advance the abatement, recovery and use of methane as a valuable clean energy source.”[28]The initiative was started in 2010 by the European Commission and thirty-seven partner governments as a way to encourage “stronger international action to fight climate change while developing clean energy and stronger economies” and now has over 1,000 member organizations.[29]

Under the same framework, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched Natural Gas STAR International (NGSI) to focus directly on mitigating methane emissions in oil and natural gas operations across the globe.[30] NGSI is a collaboration between the U.S. EPA and international oil and gas companies, whose purpose is “to identify, analyze, promote and track methane emission reduction projects.”[31]

Second, the Climate Action Plan discusses the use of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that will help cut energy waste and expand the use of clean energy.[32]  Since 2008, the low price of natural gas has helped the United States achieve “rapid decarbonization,” which has not occurred since the 1970s and 1980s, when Europe began using nuclear power.[33] As it continues to displace coal, natural gas “will prove an essential transition fuel,” helping reduce carbon emissions “as governments continue to support innovation in renewables, nuclear, and carbon capture technologies.”[34]

Based on the idea of natural gas as a “bridge fuel,” the Plan hopes to encourage a global market for natural gas and to promote the switch from coal to gas.[35] As the cleanest fossil fuel available, natural gas burns and releases nearly fifty percent less carbon dioxide than coal.[36]Of the progress that the United States has made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the past four years, half of it is due to the increase in availability and decrease in price of natural gas. Although eventually there will need to be discussions about carbon capture for natural gas, as Energy Secretary Moniz said, “[i]n the meantime, gas will actually be part of the solution.”[37]

Conclusion

Natural gas will serve as a key element in each of the three “pillars” in “[t]he President’s Climate Action Plan.” First, the natural gas industry will help the United States lower its carbon emissions by mitigating methane emissions. Second, it will prepare for the impacts of climate change by strengthening the system’s infrastructure. Finally, natural gas will function as a “bridge fuel,” which both mitigates methane emissions and increases the use of clean energy, preparing the United States, and the world, for a low carbon future. Thus, natural gas is poised to play an important, dual role in the global response to climate change.

Preferred citation: Mallory McKnight, President Obama’s Climate Action Plan: The Role of Natural Gas in Climate Change, LSU J. Energy L. & Res. Currents (October 16, 2013), http://sites.law.lsu.edu/jelrblog/?p=339.

[1] U.S. Dep’t of State, 2014 Climate Change Report, U.S. Biennial Report – Highlights 2 (2013) (unpublished report), available at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/214979.pdf.

[2] Id.

[3] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K and Reisinger, A.

(eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 104 pp. 5-6.

[4] David Hunter, James Salzman & Durwood Zaelke, International Environmental Law and Policy 4 (4th ed. 2011).

[5] Exec. Office of the President, The President’s Climate Action Plan (2013), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/image/president27sclimateactionplan.pdf.

[6] Id. at 5.

[7] Id. at 6.

[8] Id. at 5.

[9] Ben Geman, Energy secretary: Natural gas helps battle climate change—for now (Oct. 13, 2013, 7:43 PM), thehill.com.

[10] Some consider natural gas to be the “bridge” to a “low carbon future.”  See e.g., Max Luke & Alex Trembath, Methane Leakage Not a Deal Breaker for Natural Gas (Oct. 13, 2013, 7:43 PM), www.theenergycollective.com.

[11] See Exec. Office of the President, supra note 5, at 10.

[12] Global Methane Initiative, Oil and Gas Systems Methane: Reducing Emissions, Advancing Recovery and Use 1 (2011), available at https://www.globalmethane.org/documents/oil-gas_fs_eng.pdf.

[13] Global Methane Initiative, Global Methane Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities 1 (2011), available at https://www.globalmethane.org/documents/analysis_fs_en.pdf.

[14] Id.

[15] Environmental Protection Agency, What Is Natural Gas Star? 1 (2013), available at http://www.epa.gov/gasstar/documents/ngstar_mktg-factsheet.pdf.

[16] Michael Ratner, Paul W. Parfomak, Ian F. Fergusson & Linda Luther, Cong. Research Serv., R42074, U.S. Natural Gas Exports: New Opportunities, Uncertain Outcomes 23, 8 (2013), available at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42074.pdf.

[17] U.S. Dep’t of State, 2014 Climate Change Report, Chapter 3 – Greenhouse Gas Inventory 12 (2013), available athttp://www.state.gov/documents/organization/214959.pdf.

[18] See Exec. Office of the President, supra note 5, at 10.

[19] Global Methane Initiative, supra note 13, at 2.

[20] Global Methane Initiative, supra note 12, at 2.

[21] Exec. Office of the President, supra note 5, at 5.

[22] Id. at 12-14.

[23] See Global Methane Initiative, supra note 12, at 1.

[24] Eric D. Larson, Natural Gas and Climate Change 12 (2013), available at http://assets.climatecentral.org/pdfs/NaturalGas-and-ClimateChange.pdf.

[25] Id.

[26] Exec. Office of the President, supra note 5, at 17.

[27] Id.

[28] Global Methane Initiative, supra note 12, at 1.

[29] Global Methane Initiative, supra note 13, at 2.

[30] Global Methane Initiative, supra note 12, at 4.

[31] Id.

[32] “Burning natural gas is about one-half as carbon-intensive as coal, which can make it a critical “bridge fuel” for many countries as the world transitions to even cleaner sources of energy.” Exec. Office of the President, supra note 5, at 19.

[33] Max Luke & Alex Trembath, Methane Leakage Not a Deal Breaker for Natural Gas(Oct. 13, 2013, 7:43 PM), www.theenergycollective.com.

[34] Id.

[35] See Exec. Office of the President, supra note 5, at 19.

[36] International Gas Union, Natural Gas—Part of the Solution to Global Climate Change 3 (2013), available at http://www.igu.org/gas-knowhow/publications/igu-publications/Broshure_IGU_Climate_FINAL.pdf.

[37] Ben Geman, Energy secretary: Natural gas helps battle climate change—for now (Oct. 13, 2013, 7:43 PM), thehill.com.


amorg44

Law Student




Provide Website Feedback / Accessibility Statement / Privacy Statement