McKibben: Natural gas won’t work as a ‘bridge fuel’ — fracking may be worse than burning coal

Process of mixing water with fracking fluids to be injected into the ground (Wikimedia Commons)

Process of mixing water with fracking fluids to be injected into the ground (Wikimedia Commons)

In an article posted at Mother Jones today, Bill McKibben takes down the Obama administration’s pro-fracking policy and argues that creating a new generation of natural gas infrastructure — pipelines, power plants, export terminals — is not a bridge to a clean energy future, but an obstacle. “There’s no easy bridge to a working climate future,” he writes, “no way to avoid angering powerful interests.”


There is a contradiction between the Obama administration’s stated support for a strong climate policy and a wide range of actions it is taking to support stepped up fossil fuel development.  In the administration’s near-term push for natural gas production and export, via hydrofracking and more liquefied natural gas export terminals — a rare example of Washington bipartisanship — longer-term strategy on climate change and clean energy appears to take a back seat. The administration’s current approach could lock the system into primary dependence on fossil fuel infrastructure far into the 21st century.

McKibben concludes (read the full article):

In the official Obama story (one being echoed in Hillary Clinton’s climate talking points), natural gas is a “bridge” to a world of solar and wind power, which isn’t quite ready yet. But … far from being a bridge, the big investments in natural gas may actually be a breakwater that keeps this new wave of truly clean energy from washing onto our shores. …

Even as the price of solar panels has dropped, inexpensive fracked gas reduces the incentives to convert to sun and wind. And once you’ve built the pipelines and gas-fired power plants, the sunk investment makes it that much harder to switch: Suddenly you have a bunch of gas barons who will fight as hard as the coal barons Obama is now trying to subdue.

As it turns out, economists have studied the dynamics of this transition, and each time reached the same conclusion. Because gas undercuts wind and sun just as much as it undercuts coal, there’s no net climate benefit in switching to it. For instance, the venerable International Energy Agency in 2011 concluded that a large-scale shift to gas would “muscle out” low-carbon fuels and still result in raising the globe’s temperatures 3.5 degrees Celsius …

Energy expert Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations has found that if we wanted to meet that two-degree target (and since just one degree is already causing havoc, we sure should), global gas consumption would have to peak as early as 2020. Which is, in infrastructure terms, right about now—if we want to be moving past natural gas by 2020, we need to stop investing in it now.

The biggest single modeling exercise on this issue was carried out at Stanford in 2013, when teams from 14 companies, government agencies, and universities combined forces. They concluded that, in the words of analyst Joe Romm, “from a climate perspective the shale gas revolution is essentially irrelevant—and arguably a massive diversion of resources and money that could have gone into carbon-free sources.” And that study didn’t even look at the impact of leaking methane. …

It also makes no sense to export natural gas around the world. … A study this spring from the Department of Energy—even using leak rates we now know to be too conservative—found that shipping natural gas to China and burning it instead of coal would mean no improvement for the climate. …

[T]here’s no easy bridge to a working climate future—no way to avoid angering powerful interests, no way to put off actually building the clean energy we desperately need.

Clearly, the fossil fuel industry has no intention of being phased out, and in fact is seeking to bring about the development of a new era of expanded extraction, domestic consumption, and export. And it appears that the White House and federal agencies are not seriously incorporating the threat of global climate disruption into decision-making on such developments.

*    *    *

Earlier posts:

First national rally to stop fracked natural gas exports (July 12)

Bipartisan push for stepped up natural gas fracking and LNG export (June 30)

New research on methane leakage questions climate benefit of natural gas (June 27)

On the role of methane in EPA’s draft rule on carbon emissions (June 16)

Leaked EPA draft fracking guidance raises water contamination concerns (May 28)

This entry was posted in Energy, Obama Climate Plan. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to McKibben: Natural gas won’t work as a ‘bridge fuel’ — fracking may be worse than burning coal

  1. Charles says:

    Considering the high sulfur coal china burns nat gas would have to be a vast improvement. Methane (C1) is the lowest carbon fuel available to replace dirtier forms of energy gen. And is the only energy source now available in sufficient quantities to replace coal and oil fired plants.

  2. Hank Roberts says:

    Look at the dollar value attributed to the “resource” now — if they drill and burn right now.

    They expect that “asset” to lose “value” rapidly during the next few years:

Comments are closed.