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Did Environmnetalists Make a Mistake by Backing Natural Gas?

A new report shows that the boom in shale gas could backfire and slow down the changeover to renewable energy.

It has always seemed a little incongruous that national environmental groups—from the National Resources Defense Council to Greenpeace—would advocate for using natural gas. Extracting the gas takes a toll on local environments and gas-fired power plants dump plenty of carbon into the atmosphere (albeit far less than coal plants).

But in plotting a path to a low-carbon future, environmental groups counted natural gas as an important “bridge fuel”—a source of clean energy that would help reduce overall carbon emissions until renewable energy sources scaled up enough to take over. But it's never been clear how that transition would happen, especially because the natural gas industry would have every incentive to keep the country on the bridge. And with gas prices expected to stay low for years to come, a new report from the MIT Energy Initiative shows that the boom in shale gas could backfire and slow down the changeover to renewable energy.

Although the price of electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind is decreasing rapidly, gas is even cheaper and starts with a much larger market share. While solar and wind projects lag when government support falls, electricity companies are investing heavily in gas-fired capacity. The MIT study made projections for a scenario in which the government supported cutting coal-fired capacity in half by 2050 and increasing renewables’ share of the market to 25 percent by 2030. If shale gas—natural gas extracted using hydraulic fracturing techniques—was not available, renewables’ share of electricity generated would grow to 29 percent by 2030, the researchers found. With cheap shale gas available, renewables would grow only as much as the government mandated, to 25 percent.

The MIT researchers did find that shale gas would create more flexibility to meet carbon reduction targets. But, they wrote, “While taking advantage of this gift in the short run, treating gas a 'bridge' to a low-carbon future, it is crucial not to allow the greater ease of the near-term task to erode efforts to prepare a landing at the other end of the bridge.”

The upshot of the report is that cheap renewables aren’t going to be enough to wean the country off fossil fuels. State and federal governments will need to create policies like the one the report envisions—standards that require electricity providers to source a defined percentage of their energy from renewable sources. More than half of states already have standards in place; legislators like Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) have been advocating for a federal equivalent. To be most effective, those standards should focus on renewable sources like wind and solar, not clean-energy sources like natural gas. Environmental groups might have once seen a need to promote natural gas, but these days, the gas industry doesn’t need any help.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Center for American Progress Action Fund

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