OPINION: The New Case for Natural Gas

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The need to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions while enhancing energy security and providing economical energy services is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today. Achieving these goals will require a transformation of the global energy economy and must be based on a robust combination of resources and technologies.

Natural gas has recently emerged as a vital but neglected complement to the paragons of low-carbon energy: renewable energy and energy efficiency. Recent developments in technology, from gas wells to home appliances, suggest a need to fundamentally reevaluate the role of natural gas in the energy system. Together with renewable energy and energy efficiency, natural gas should be a cornerstone of strategies to advance energy security and reduce the threat of climate change - a conclusion that has recently been supported by U.S. environmental leaders, including Robert Kennedy, Jr., John Podesta, Carl Pope, and Tim Wirth.

Compared with coal, natural gas allows a 50-80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, depending on the application. While U.S. oil production and reserves have been declining for nearly four decades, natural gas production and reserves have risen dramatically in just the last few years. Some estimates indicate that gas may actually be more abundant than coal and that U.S. gas production can continue rising for decades to come, allowing it to serve as a transition  fuel-eventually replaced by hydrogen derived from renewable sources. Most countries have not yet fully explored their potential for unconventional gas, but early research indicates that it is equally abundant globally.

Natural gas is the only fossil fuel that can, with existing technology, immediately contribute to reducing oil dependence and solving the climate problem by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Expanded use of natural gas could rapidly substitute for the older coal-fired power plants that are not targets for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). And natural gas-based electricity can provide the reliable power supplies that are needed to complement intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar power.

The potential of natural gas to contribute to advances in energy efficiency and to facilitate renewable energy deployment have so far been ignored by most policymakers. This was abundantly clear in the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this June. That bill is tilted heavily toward support for coal and includes little support for natural gas.

Policy support for natural gas is one of the keys to rapid reductions in carbon emissions over the next few years. And beyond that, it holds out the promise of eliminating coal-based electricity by 2030.

Christopher Flavin is president of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C.