Make Natural Gas a (Shorter) Bridge to the Future

Clean is relative.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

By speeding the demise of coal, which is far dirtier, cheap natural gas has done as much to reduce carbon emissions as any government regulation. But the returns are already diminishing: Natural gas also emits carbon dioxide, and this year for the first time the amount will exceed that of coal in the U.S.

The most efficient way to reduce these emissions -- from natural gas or any other fossil fuel -- is through a carbon tax. By setting a price per ton of carbon emitted that’s equal to its social cost, the government can use the market to respond to climate change and reduce emissions through a mix of new technology and changes in consumer and producer behavior. The government can then use the revenue from a carbon tax to fund cuts in other taxes.

Unfortunately, the political obstacles to a carbon tax are daunting. In the meantime, the federal and state governments should adjust their approach to address carbon emissions from natural gas specifically.

U.S. Fossil Fuel Emissions
Projected emissions of carbon dioxide, by fuel type, in megatons
 
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2016

About a third of natural gas used in the U.S. goes toward generating electricity. President Barack Obama’s proposed regulations of the power sector, now on hold by the Supreme Court, would allow states to choose how best to reduce their emissions. Instead of simply approving the construction of new natural-gas plants, states should focus on energy efficiency and renewable power.

They can also go further, adopting or increasing what’s known as renewable portfolio standards, which set the minimum amount of power that utilities must get from wind, solar or other renewable sources. Better still are clean portfolio standards, which include nuclear power

QuickTake Climate Change

Much of the remaining two-thirds of natural gas is used to power household appliances and in manufacturing. Here, incremental progress is possible -- by encouraging better insulation and the use of more efficient appliances, for example, or funding research and development of cleaner industrial technology.

In another area -- the release of methane, among the most potent greenhouse gases, during the extraction, transportation and storage of natural gas -- government can have a more immediate impact. New federal rules meant to cut methane emissions from new natural gas wells are not aggressive enough. Meanwhile, there are no regulations on underground storage caverns, the dangers of which were illustrated by last year’s massive leak at the Aliso Canyon storage site near Los Angeles.

Natural gas remains an essential bridge to a cleaner, more efficient future. It just needs to be a shorter one.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.