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Fuzzy Math on Natural Gas

Comments are due one week from today on the EPA’s proposal to curb carbon pollution from existing power plants, the Clean Power Plan. I’m writing a series of blog posts to share some of what will go in our comments to the agency. We’ll start with an issue most people aren’t talking about: Switching from coal to natural gas, a major element of the EPA plan, is a colossal waste of money because we’ll need to switch from natural gas to renewables soon anyway. In its proposal, the EPA ignores this hidden cost of natural gas.

One of the main ways EPA envisions curbing carbon emissions is by replacing coal-fired electricity plants with ones that burn natural gas. The proposal relies heavily on this strategy, so much that it would spur a good deal of additional natural gas extraction, including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” That’s a great reason not to rely on natural gas to solve our climate problem. We shouldn’t have to create a new set of environmental disasters to stop climate change – and we don’t.

There are two other major problems with EPA’s plan to increase the use of natural gas. The first, which is getting a lot of attention, is that switching from coal to natural gas may have little to no climate benefit. Natural gas releases a good deal of methane throughout its life cycle, and methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. On a twenty-year time horizon, it is 87 times as climate-disrupting as carbon. In 100 years, it’s 36 times more potent. As Joe Romm put it over at ClimateProgress, “by the time natural gas has a net benefit you’ll likely be dead and the climate ruined.”

Even setting aside the methane issue, burning natural gas also emits carbon – less carbon than burning coal, to be sure, but that’s not good enough. We don’t just need to reduce carbon emissions. According to the International Energy Agency’s most recent analysis, we should cut them to zero by 2040. What’s the point of switching to natural gas between now and 2030, the end date of the EPA’s proposed rule, if we’ll need to phase out natural gas by 2040? Why not just skip straight to renewables? We’re making these points in our comments – without the rhetorical questions, at least in the current draft – as are many other groups.

Here’s the second, less recognized point, which stems from our consumer perspective. These changes cost a significant amount of money, much of which will ultimately be paid by consumers through electricity bills (or through higher prices for goods and services from companies who paid the costs on their electricity bills). Overall, the Plan will save consumers money because it includes efficiency measures that will reduce electricity use, but it could be even better. Switching twice rather than once – from coal to natural gas, then natural gas – needlessly compounds the cost of responding to climate change. The EPA’s proposal ignores the additional costs of this double-switch. In essence, we’re telling the agency that it needs to use a more comprehensive, more accurate accounting of the cost of natural gas. The real cost is the price of switching from coal to natural gas, which is expensive in its own right, plus the cost of switching to renewables almost immediately thereafter.

Relying on natural gas to reduce carbon emissions just doesn’t make sense. Not only is the climate benefit of natural gas doubtful; it’s exorbitantly expensive compared to improving energy efficiency and switching directly to generating electricity sustainably from renewable sources.