Natural Gas Could Ease the Path to a Low-Carbon Future

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Natural gas resources appear to be far more abundant than industry experts previously assumed. Recent advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have made the extraction of natural gas from tight sands, coal bed methane, and deep shales economically feasible. If these new resources can be extracted responsibly, natural gas may finally be able to overcome the supply, price volatility, and energy security concerns that have hampered its growth during the past few decades.

While additional regulation will be needed to control the local pollution that is associated with extracting natural gas, the coming natural gas boom offers considerable promise for improving global environmental sustainability.

Although still a fossil fuel, natural gas contains 25 percent less carbon than oil and half as much as coal. Because gas plants are also more efficient, replacing the average coal-fired power plant with a new gas plant reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 63 percent.

Therefore, deploying natural gas on a larger scale, especially in the electricity generation sector, could displace dirtier fossil fuels, providing an affordable option to reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately and improve air quality. Unlike coal plants, gas generators can be easily and quickly powered up and down, providing the flexible backup that is needed as solar and wind power become a larger share of the electricity system

Already, natural gas supplies more than 23 percent of U.S. electricity generation, while coal's share fell below 45 percent last year for the first time in three decades. The drop in coal-fired generation between 2007 and 2009 was responsible for almost half of the nearly 10-percent decline in energy-related U.S. carbon dioxide emission between 2007 and 2009.

The Worldwatch Institute is exploring the new opportunities and challenges presented by natural gas. In the first in a series of briefing papers, Christopher Flavin and Saya Kitasei provide an overview of the new role of natural gas in a low-carbon economy. Future papers will focus on a range of specific issues, including local environmental problems related to shale gas development and strategies for integrating natural gas with renewable energy.   

Click here to visit the Natural Gas and Sustainable Energy Initiative.