Natural Gas and Climate Change

The rise in natural gas production, particularly in the U.S., has unquestionably impacted the global energy equation. Fueled by the unconventional-natural-gas revolution, natural gas is now a significant factor in the U.S. and global energy mix. As Sonal Patel summarized from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2013 World Energy Outlook (WEO-2013):

By 2035, natural gas demand will outpace that of any other individual fuel and end up nearly 50% higher than in 2011. Demand for gas will come mostly from the Middle East-driven by new power generation-but also from Asian countries, including China, India, and Indonesia, and Latin America. Power generation continues to be the largest source of gas demand, accounting for around 40% of global demand over the period. New gas plants, meanwhile, are expected to make up around a quarter (or 1,000 GW) of net capacity additions in the world’s power sector through 2035.

Given the seemingly inevitable scenario of natural gas playing a significant role in the energy mix (and particularly in U.S., given the recent unconventional-natural-gas boom), how will its increased use influence climate change and future energy policies? The tenet that natural gas, being a cleaner-burning fuel, will lessen a carbon footprint has been bandied around for awhile now. Amy Harder, from National Journal, picks up this thread with:

First the aforementioned wisdom: Natural gas is unquestionably helping the United States reduce its climate footprint. Our nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions have dropped to levels not seen since the 1990s, thanks in part to this cleaner-burning fuel. Natural gas produces half the carbon emissions of coal and about a third fewer than oil. This is why everyone in the Obama administration, including the president himself, can’t talk enough about the climate benefits of natural gas.

Three disparate factors make the relationship between natural gas and climate change not so unequivocally simple and good. Concerns about methane emissions persist, but notwithstanding that challenge, two greater problems loom: First, shifting significantly away from coal to natural gas doesn’t get the planet anywhere close to the carbon-reduction levels scientists say we must reach. And second, while the natural-gas boom is great for the economy and the immediate reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, it has deflated the political urgency to cut fossil-fuel dependence, which was more compelling when we thought our resources of oil and natural gas were scarce. We have a great problem of energy abundance.

Obviously, natural gas is not the total panacea for “fueling” the transition to a carbon-negative energy mix. But given the current and predicted production/market conditions, it will be a considerable part of the future global energy equation. There is more info over at websites like cooleffect.org for those who want to see what they can do personally to help their carbon emissions be reduced.

Coal Could Overtake Oil As Number 1 Global Energy Source By 2017

I watched a coal unit train zip through the Belgrade-Bozeman, Montana, area yesterday. The Montana Rail Link unit train was 125 cars in length and presumably bound for Pacific Northwest seaports. The coal is sourced from the Powder River Basin, an approximately 20,000-acre part of Wyoming that supplies about 40 percent of U.S. coal. An informative guide to the Montana-Pacific Northwest coal train situation is the July 2012 Western Organization of Resource Councils’ publication – RAIL IMPACTS OF POWDER RIVER BASIN COAL TO ASIA BY WAY OF PACIFIC NORTHWEST TERMINALS.

My viewing of the coal train passage coincided time-wise with a press release on the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Medium-Term Coal Market Report. The IEA contends that by 2017 coal will closely rival oil as the number one global energy source.

“Thanks to abundant supplies and insatiable demand for power from emerging markets, coal met nearly half of the rise in global energy demand during the first decade of the 21st Century,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “This report sees that trend continuing. In fact, the world will burn around 1.2 billion more tonnes of coal per year by 2017 compared to today – equivalent to the current coal consumption of Russia and the United States combined. Coal’s share of the global energy mix continues to grow each year, and if no changes are made to current policies, coal will catch oil within a decade.”

The growth trend for coal will increase globally except for in the U.S. where cheap natural gas will bring a decline to coal usage. China and India will be the big markets for coal over the next five years, accounting for than 90 percent of the increase in coal demand.

In a Huff Post Green Blog, van der Hoeven notes that although affordable coal has aided emerging economies …” the surge in coal burning is not good news. Despite industry’s effort to promote “clean” coal, the black matter remains the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. The average coal-based power plant emits a tonne of CO2 per MWh generated, about twice the level of a power plant using combined-cycle gas turbines.”

The relentless growth trend for coal currently appears untouched by either climate policy or the economic slowdown. Given the present political situation, it may well be that cheap natural gas continues to be our biggest hope for carbon emission reductions.

U.S. Coal Exports

For those concerned about coal use and the environment, the U.S. Energy Administration recently released information on U.S. coal exports. A brief summary follows:

“U.S. 2012 coal exports, supported by rising steam coal exports, are expected to break their previous record level of almost 113 million tons, set in 1981. Exports for the first half of 2012 reached almost 67 million tons, surpassing most annual export volumes dating back to 1949. U.S. coal exports averaged 56 million tons per year in the decade preceding 2011. If exports continue at their current pace, the United States will export 133 million tons this year, although EIA forecasts exports of 125 million tons.”  Source: Today In Energy, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 10/23/2012. Read more at: U.S. Coal Exports