By Larry Cathles, Commentary, Monday, August 26, 2013 in TimesUnion.com comentary
Now that President Barack Obama and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have toured New York, it is worth considering the goals we should have for the 21st century, the role natural gas could play and what is broadly at stake. The world is watching New York.
As the Earth's population grows from 7 billion to 10.5 billion, meeting future energy goals requires that the global energy supply expand from 15 terawatts to 75 terawatts. Because energy is prosperity, the expansion of supply must also be steady. Prosperity delayed, like justice delayed, has a high social cost.
Greenhouse warming is equally important to an expanded energy supply. Greenhouse warming dictates that the energy supply at the end of the century be from low-carbon sources, and the transition should minimize the amount of CO2 — that is, the long-lived greenhouse gas — that we put into the atmosphere.
The Western world represents about 20 percent of the human population, and we already enjoy a high standard of living. We can and should conserve and become more efficient in our energy use, but the United States and the rest of the West aren't the players that will count in greenhouse gas warming.
Rather, it is the fuel choices made by India, China and the developing world that will count. The advantage of our encouraging the substitution of natural gas for coal in the U.S. is that it will increase our prosperity, improve our environment, and reduce our CO2 emissions immediately and automatically. Most importantly, it will encourage the developing world to follow our lead.
U.S. experience already demonstrates the immediate benefits of substitution. China has become the No. 1 coal importer in the world, and Europe's use of coal has increased every year since 2009. The opposite has happened in the United States. Over the last 5 years, low-cost shale gas has led to the construction of the equivalent of more than twenty 350 megawatt natural gas-fired plants each year, and the retirement of the equivalent of 32 megawatt U.S. coal plants each year. Largely as a result, U.S. carbon emissions have dropped by 490 billion kilograms.
Amazingly, methane emissions — another greenhouse gas linked to climate change — from natural gas production have also dropped sharply. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane emissions held steady at roughly 2.5 percent of natural gas production from 1990 to 2007, but from 2007 to 2011 they declined to 1.7 percent. Any leakage below 3 percent means swapping gas for coal in electricity generation delivers a net climate benefit.
Areas producing natural gas in the U.S. are prosperous, have low unemployment and burgeoning manufacturing sectors.
Natural gas increases prosperity, improves the environment — including fewer emissions of particulates, sulfur dioxide, and mercury from coal plants — and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
The real threat of permanent climate change comes from coal. If China and India develop a coal energy infrastructure, they will likely consume their massive coal resource bases. But if China and other developing countries build a natural gas infrastructure first, they will immediately enjoy dramatically reduced pollution and affordable energy.
It may be that lower carbon energy sources will become attractive enough that they will never significantly tap their coal resources. Burning the world's entire resource base of natural gas would introduce only about one-seventh the mass of CO2 to the atmosphere as burning the world's resource base of coal.
The world is paying attention to New York. If New York shows how natural gas can be responsibly developed and transparently shares this knowledge, the world will use more natural gas and less coal, make a more rapid transition to low- and zero-carbon fuels, and consume less coal than it would otherwise.
Obama is correct about the transitional value of natural gas. New York should allow its counties in the state to develop their shale gas resources and show how democracies can debate difficult issues and develop pragmatic, meaningful, self-funded, lower carbon and economically beneficial solutions.
Larry Cathles teaches at Cornell University.