It’s Time to Stop Calling Natural Gas a ‘Bridge Fuel’ to a Safe Climate, Says New Report

Jerri-Lynn here.  The International Energy Agency (IEA) released its annual market report, Gas 2019, yesterday, forecasting that global demand for natural gas will continue to surge over the next five years, driven by strong consumption in Asian countries and the further development of international natural gas trade (see the IEA’s press releases launching the report for a quick introduction, Demand from Asia is set to power the growth of the global gas industry over the next five years.

This report arrives just a little over two years since Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement; it’s the latest dire news to report on the climate change beat.

I had mulled crossposting this Common Dreams piece, As Study Shows Methane Emissions ‘Vastly Underestimated,’ Warnings That US Fracked Gas Export Bonanza Imperils Planetary Stability, which contends the climate change implications of surging demand for natural underplay the actual threat, as significant methane emissions from industries such as fertilizer may be underestimated.

I opted instead for this meatier Justin Mikulka piece, from last Monday. Interested readers can compare its guarded optimism to the more pessimistic Common Dreams piece.

By Justin Mikulka, a freelance writer, audio and video producer living in Trumansburg, NY. Originally published at DeSmog Blog

Natural gas, marketed for years as a “bridge fuel” to cleaner energy sources, cannot be part of any climate solution, according to a new report from Oil Change International.

While its authors outline a range of arguments, the report, Burning the Gas “Bridge Fuel” Myth: Why Gas is Not Clean, Cheap, or Necessary, highlights this simple reason: There is no room for new fossil fuel development — natural gas included — within the Paris Agreement goals. Therefore, plans to transition to a natural gas-based system are incompatible with international climate goals.

“We simply have no more time to debate what’s already been settled. We must move swiftly to a fully renewable energy economy and leave all fossil fuels, including gas, behind,” said Lorne Stockman, report author and Senior Research Analyst for Oil Change International. “Despite desperate attempts by the oil and gas industry to persuade policymakers that their products have a future in a climate-safe world, a rational look at the data clearly shows otherwise.”

While this fact alone should be enough to counter the industry’s attempt to sell natural gas — which is mostly the potent greenhouse gas methane — as a “clean” fuel, there are plenty of other reasons to move on from all fossil fuels, including natural gas.

Renewables Plus Storage Are Already Economical — and Getting Cheaper

In 2013 when natural gas was being touted as a bridge fuel, the oil and gas industry could point to it as a cheaper alternative for producing electricity than coal. At the time, renewable energy sources and battery storage simply weren’t cost-competitive with natural gas or coal.

That was a different time. The low cost of renewable energy has helped end the future of the coal industry and is now poised to do the same to natural gas. The concept of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” was based on the idea that the world needed a reliable and economical energy source to cover the transition until renewables plus storage were a viable alternative.

That time is now.

And this is happening as the world is awash in very cheap natural gas. In America, the price of natural gas has gone negative in places like the Permian Basin in Texas. In North Dakota, oil and gas producers are currently flaring 20 percent of the gas they produce because it isn’t worth capturing. Natural gas prices can’t go lower and can only go up from here.

Meanwhile, the costs of renewables continue to fall, and energy analysts predict that the costs of battery storage will continue dropping rapidly. The economics of renewables plus storage are competitive with natural gas now and appear poised to widen the gap in the near future.

Oil and Gas Industry Poised for a Fight

The oil and gas industry is quite open about its plans to either burn every last bit of oil and gas or turn it all into plastic and petrochemicals. There is no plan to “leave it in the ground.” The coal industry took the same approach but lost the economic argument once natural gas and renewables made coal energy obsolete in many places of the world.

However, the oil and gas industry in the U.S. and elsewhere is currently on a massive building spree, constructing new pipelines, drilling sites, refineries, and other infrastructure that, once built, serve to lock in future demand for natural gas. And anti-fossil fuel activists aren’t the only ones suggesting that the U.S. is overbuilding gas pipelinesliquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities, or petrochemical facilities to turn gas into plastics.

Natural gas producers realize that natural gas-fired power plants will help lock in future demand for their products. Once these plants are built, they will be used for decades, even if renewable energy is cheaper.

We can see examples of this business model now in attempts to prop up the struggling U.S. nuclear and coal industries. One example of how outdated infrastructure can still be profitable for an industry while a burden to ratepayers is a coal power plant that has been shut down in Wisconsin. Despite the coal plant not being in operation, ratepayers are expected to pick up the tab for another billion dollars over the next 20 years to pay for the remaining balance on the plant as well as profits to its owners — profits for a coal plant shut down because it wasn’t economical.

Oil and Gas Profits vs. a Livable Climate

Scientists say avoiding catastrophic climate change requires drastically reducing fossil fuel use. Meeting international climate goals and avoiding large-scale extinction of plant and animal life calls for rapidly decarbonizing the global economy, which is now a possibility with the low-and-dropping costs of renewable energy and storage.

However, this giant global shift would mean that oil and gas companies would follow in the footsteps of the failing coal industry. Major investors have begun to make financial decisions with this in mind. Last month, the Bank of Canada acknowledged for the first time that climate change poses financial risks to Canada’s economy.

Meanwhile, companies like Exxon continue to fight efforts to make the company address climate change. The petrochemical billionaire Koch brothers continue their war on electric cars, which threaten their businesses. And the Trump administration continues its war on science.

If past is prologue, Exxon and the rest of the oil and gas industry will likely spend large sums of money trying to lock in future demand for their products while fighting the transition to renewable energy every step of the way.

That’s despite acknowledging the economic viability of renewable energy in the hottest oil field in America — the Permian region in Texas and New Mexico. There, Exxon and the oil industry are choosing to power their fracking operations with solar, wind, and battery storage despite the region being awash in cheap natural gas.

Renewables just make economic sense. While some oil and gas producers have opted out of burning natural gas, their so-called “bridge fuel,” when they need to buy new power, the industry’s efforts to lock in future demand for natural gas is removing consumers’ ability to follow suit.


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  1. Svante

    Well, we’re doing our part, here in NYC. Though, I’m curious to see what the landlords and fuel oil mob do to prevent scores-of-thousands of ancient oil-fired boilers (personal toxic waste incinerators) about to switch to clean/ green radium-flavored natural gas (fracked from leaky, return water spewing, rapidly depleting wells in NEPA). A handy fact sheet shows us how green we’ll be (without harshing our buzz about opioid abusing Pennsyltucky deplorables). Williams and Spectrum will have their pipelines in any day now, and I’m curious to see if the North Bergen power station will burn dil-bit via rail or excess wet-gas? Hey, shit happens

    1. Yves Smith

      Every one of the seven buildings I have lived in in NYC had steam heat, using steam generated as a by-product of electricity generation, and one used radiant electrical heaters, which were God-awful at heating.

      1. Svante

        We’ve two portable boilers out front, now. And the co-op board’s only just proclaimed our “replacement” boiler’s going to be converted (they, of course made blank eyes, originally) It’s invariably like the opening scene of a sci-fi flick: specious obliviousness, then haughty procrastination, obtuse avoidance, pouty projection… CO2e, seems to ignore all the methane (and worse) leaking, 200 miles away? As thousands of wells are fracked, change owners and are abandoned. Will my building’s carbon footprint improve still further?

        I’d requested use of a Protect-O-Screen (UV flash shield) of one crew, welding some hastily taped 8 5/8″ laterals, outside a packed school playground @W78th (everybody seemed so mesmerized at their striking arcs to girthweld gas linepipe, probably rejected from some yard in north Philly?) The same blocks of West End are covered with steel plates, backhoes jerking in and out of traffic, 3 years later?

      2. Ian Ollmann

        Geothermal heat — using the earth as a big heat sink — is probably a reasonable solution in most places, though I imagine the density of NYC might run into trouble.

  2. Peter

    A bit of a spoiler – without nuclear renewables are not a solution.
    Renewables are not necessarily clean or without their own risks to the environmental impact. Just because someone claims their superiority doesn’t necessarily mean that claim is correct.

    I have lived in an area in Northern BC where huge dam projects that were either built or are being built impact severely wildlife, land use, CO2 impact by removing valuable forest and future development like silting of the riverbed. Not a nice picture.

    My bullshit detector always starts operating when someone makes claims about the benefits of any technology without mentioning the negative impacts accompanying that technology.
    I especially have some doubts about his claims about the impact of the Chernobyl disaster and the actual death toll connected in the cited article. Still, without a baseline production of a powers source that is reliable, I doubt renewables will be able to replace fossil fuels.

    Germany’s carbon emissions have been flat since 2009, despite an investment of $580 billion by 2025 in a renewables-heavy electrical grid, a 50 percent rise in electricity cost.

    Meanwhile, France produces one-tenth the carbon emissions per unit of electricity as Germany and pays little more than half for its electricity. How? Through nuclear power.

    Then, under pressure from Germany, France spent $33 billion on renewables, over the last decade. What was the result? A rise in the carbon intensity of its electricity supply, and higher electricity prices, too.

    I think it’s natural that those of us who became active on climate change gravitated toward renewables. They seemed like a way to harmonize human society with the natural world. Collectively, we have been suffering from an appeal-to-nature fallacy no different from the one that leads us to buy products at the supermarket labeled “all natural.” But it’s high time that those of us who appointed ourselves Earth’s guardians should take a second look at the science, and start questioning the impacts of our actions.

    Now that we know that renewables can’t save the planet, are we really going to stand by and let them destroy it?

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      “My bullshit detector always starts operating when someone makes claims about the benefits of any technology without mentioning the negative impacts accompanying that technology.”

      In that case the article you cite in favor of nuclear should get your BS detector spinning like a top. It’s a veritable hit piece on renewables, but can not stop singing the praises of nuclear. Most of its supporting links are to undocumented claims which like itself, are really opinion pieces . Another troubling issue in terms of credibility is that some of the sources used to support its claims date from 2013, 2014 or 2015, whereas the technology for renewables keeps changing by the year if not the month.

      I’m sure some of the arguments made are valid issues with renewables, but just as with your comment, the bias toward nuclear is simply too obvious and your claims against renewables -as presented at least- are insufficiently documented to make a credible case that renewables will, as you quote, destroy the planet, or that the issues they have can not be addressed.

      1. Peter

        In that case the article you cite in favor of nuclear should get your BS detector spinning like a top.
        I mentioned his claim about the death toll in Chernobyl, I also could mention the Fukushima 40 – 60 year cleanup, or the problems with disposal still unsolved.
        However, some of the problems with renewables, like the production of batteries and the various environmental disasters connected with lithium extraction often just are swept under the rug.

        I am still not convinced that any source of energy will be environmentally friendly enough to ensure a safe energy supply for the amount of humanity demanding it, and the solution will have to be not alternate production alone, but rather sharp decreases in supply with the attendant reduction in industrial output, stressing use of fossil fuels to agricultural production, shiping and mass transportation, an increase in mass transportation and the elimination of automotive personal transport except for emergency uses by responders.

      2. Peter

        Renewables are not necessarily clean or without their own risks to the environmental impact. Just because someone claims their superiority doesn’t necessarily mean that claim is correct.
        That was my contention. I do not agree with the author’s conclusion that they will destroy the planet, but rather quoted his article to point to the fact that renewables are not without problems, and that regarding base line load nuclear power – which has of course seen increases in safety measures – can play an important part.

        While most people recognize that solar and wind are low-carbon energy sources, bioenergy and carbon capture and storage also have an indispensable role in basically all scenarios where countries rapidly reduce carbon emissions. Our results indicate that we need to search for ways to use these technologies while minimizing the harm to ecosystems. It is not just about whether we employ clean energy, but what technologies, where and how.

        1. Louis Fyne

          Your efforts are valiant and I salute you. But save your breath/energy/patience. To many people, it’s dogma that fission and being an environmentalist are mutually exclusive.

          The UN’s IPCC’s 2018 report explicitly includes fission as the baseline scenario in a de-carbonization of the world’s economy. That fact is never mentioned in all the news articles about the IPCC’s de-carbonization efforts.

          Just saying

    2. David Jones

      If you actually look at the electricity sector emissions you should find that Germany has reduced the emissions of that sector in recent times so the above is inaccurate.

      The flat emissions seem to have less to do with the viability of renewables in terms of emissions reductions and more to do with recession related movements as well as Fukushima and the fact nuclear energy went down very quickly after that which had to be partially compensated with coal.

      There are other sectors that are actually more of an issue like the transportation sector but then again that’s the case with many countries as that industry pushed people towards larger vehicles.

      I’m going to venture a guess that a likely culprit for the emissions in France is again the transportation sector rather than something specific about renewables. Nuclear as a “solution” for climate change is basically replacing one long term problem with another long term problem. I’ve nothing against a certain amount, say 20% with modern reactors but these won’t be ready in time to be of much use.

      1. Peter

        If you actually look at the electricity sector emissions you should find that Germany has reduced the emissions of that sector in recent times so the above is inaccurate.

        Your claim is not confirmed by this graph:×566.png?itok=LpW_llZ5

        between 2014 and the last data point 2017 the emission reduction is flat, however there is also a slight increase in power consumption.

  3. JenniWest

    Natural gas is only a good bridge fuel–and it IS a good bridge fuel–if we are rapidly and feverishly building the replacements for fossil fuel elimination. We are badly neglecting the second part of the deal and natural gas is filling in the chasm where we only needed a bridge, originally. If you think building solar and wind is the right course, welcome to WHY we are using so much natural gas. There are only three kinds of clean, reliable power that are capable of replacing fossil on any meaningful scale: nuclear, hydro, geothermal. Hydro is maxed out. Geothermal is site specific, high maintenance and limited. Nuclear will be what saves us. We are not rapidly building nuclear. So we get natural gas.

  4. Ptb

    First of all, retirement of coal is far from done. In the US it is proceeding rapidly, replaced by natgas. In China, but also in Japan and Germany, coal use is right up there (due to higher import costs of natgas and retirement of nuke). In the coming decade, JP and DE will finally see wind/solar take share from coal.

    China and other less wealthy industrialized countries, however, are not only dominated by coal electric, but are growing faster in use overall too. For them natgas (and nuclear, which they are investing in) is an indispensible opportunity to cut carbon in the next 25 years – in spite of ALSO being the world leader in solar production.

    Electric storage is best applicable specifically to high-solar-availability areas, to cover the night shift, so to speak. High wind areas, due to wind’s notably higher EROI, have a different calculus. First, because you can save energy (carbon) by adding wind instead of a battery, even in a high curtailment scenario. Second because the pattern of availability doesn’t have predictable daily gaps.

    While an 8 hour battery bank may be profitable, because it is used every night, you would need a 100 hour battery bank to assure grid power all the time, and then the big battery goes into curtailment (just like ALL generation sources in a high renewable system). This curtailment reduces the battery economics and EROI.

    A conventional generation source as a backup will continue to be needed generally in the near and medium term. One with low upfront cost in $ and carbon is sensible. I am taking it as a given that we don’t want it to be coal (or waste based biofuel, which is carbon equivalent to coal. agricultural biofuel, which still requires much energy embodied in fertilizer, is a tossup, provided we dont distill it… ethanol is a carbon/energy nightmare). Nuclear is of course maximal upfront cost – it has merits but is not a “backup” technology.

  5. RepubAnon

    I’d suggest that natural gas really is a bridge fuel – it’s simply that the fossil fuel folks aren’t interested in building bridges.

    It’s easier to convert an existing coal-fired plant to use natural gas than it is to tear it down and replace it with renewables. If we treat natural gas as a bridge fuel, this means:
    * convert existing coal plants to natural gas
    * for new plants, build only renewables
    * replace existing fossil fuel plants with renewables.

    What the natural gas folks are marketing as a “bridge” is somewhat different. Their plan is to build only natural gas plants, while claiming that renewables aren’t practical – yet. As the natural gas folks define “practical” as “things which help sustain the fossil fuel industry”, their plan is a bridge to nowhere.

    1. Svante

      Plan A: sell (fracked) LNG to Europe…

      Plan B: build pipelines to ship it south, build hundreds of gas power stations so run air-conditioners 24/7 as Jesus SMITES ’em for gay marriage & sharia law.

      Plan C: Co-opt any Green New Deal into GREEN-washed spiels on CNBC/ MSDNC et al, about how eco-terrorists & RussiaRussiaRussia dun kil’t R Freedum Molecules® (Hillary, quoting Berman, in TD Bank speech)

    2. David Jones

      It’s not a bridge fuel unless the plan is to close all of this new infrastructure down within less than 3 decades. That’s probably less than the career of someone just starting out in that industry. Basically a disaster waiting to happen because you either end up with a lot of people out of work if you want to actually curb emissions in an effective way or you end up totally missing any planned cuts and driving strains into a 3c situation. That’s unless substantial efforts are made on CCS/CCU but I doubt that CC + NatGas is going to be a better option compared to Batteries (so may possibilities even today) + Renewables in 2040 and beyond. That’s very unlikely and you end up with a ton of wasted capital on NatGas infrastructure. Stranded assets in the making and again, a lot of people out of work unless their skills are transferable to renewables.

  6. Steven

    I remember reading somewhere we didn’t need to worry about climate change because we would run out of enough fuel to cook the planet first. That was probably ‘wishful thinking’ (double SIC?) but ‘peak oil’ is still very much an issue. What is desperately needed is a massive public energy education campaign. The importance of energy as one of the “three ingredients of wealth” (Wealth, Virtual Wealth & Debt, Frederick Soddy) should not come as a huge surprise to anyone who has ever heard of the Industrial Revolution.

    What may come as a surprise is the degree to which their immediate prosperity – to say nothing about that of their posterity – is threatened by an overwhelming dependence on the fossil fuels* it took the earth 500 million years to create. The public is not likely to receive that education from its bloviating, bought and paid for political leadership. Nor is it likely to receive the information required from a main stream media whose horizons by Wall Street decree are not allowed to extend more than 18 months into the future.

    As for the Koch brothers, the heads of the fossil fuel companies and certain privately owned electrical utilities… if 50 years ago conniving at the murder of a few million people could get you hanged, what is an appropriate punishment for murdering billions, perhaps even a planet?

    “Today, 84 percent of the average world citizen’s energy is provided by fossil fuels,…”

    The Energy Reader (p. 156). Watershed Media. Kindle Edition.

    P.S. Take a look at the Post Carbon Institute’s web site if you are not familiar with its work.

  7. John k

    Be nice to see an article comparing recent bids for wholesale solar wind plus storage. I think I saw a price of .022/kwhr including storage in Texas, what about other states?
    And what are projections?
    And what is the consensus regarding how much storage is necessary? And what else can excess solar be used for? How about splitting water, store the hydrogen, then burn it later in a former natural gas plant?
    Utilities should have extra incentives to build renewables, reduced incentives for non renewables.

    Also, which states are encouraging renewables, neutral, and which are opposed… and opposed to what, exactly? Eg, Florida has been fighting rooftop while, I think, buying cheap renewables wholesale… an example of utility with wrong incentives.
    Anyway, if we want to fight climate change and fossil fuels, you first need to know where to rouse the locals.

    1. Ptb

      TX is an energy paradise. Abundant solar, wind, oil, gas, local sea access, refineries, and very permissive regulators. Warm places with both wind and solar are in good shape.

      Re: hydrogen – that is kindof the dream. The whole Hydrogen Fuel Cell economy… there actually is fairly mature tech, PEM cells, think of it as a super battery. they are energetically ok but the semi mature incarnations of this tech require too much platinum group metals to compete ($$$). Active area of research to find alternative chemistries.

      I think NYS, where I am, has favored solar more than appropriate for some reason, even though we are wind country. And we have big hydro and nuclear. Wind+Hydro+Nuclear is a viable combination. [Solar investment west of the Hudson valley (cloud zone from lakes), IMO, is a wasted opportunity cost].

      A lot of the midwest is wind county. West coast is both (the dry side of the mountain ranges, solar land, is w/in transmission distance). The southeast US is a problem area (hence the best hope for nukes).

  8. cnchal

    > . . . Natural gas prices can’t go lower and can only go up from here.

    >. . . The economics of renewables plus storage are competitive with natural gas now and appear poised to widen the gap in the near future.

    Hmmm. What would eclownomists make of this conundrum?

    What if natural gas goes much lower, leaving all the “investment in pipes” to rust in the field, because if the second statement is true, the first must be false.

    1. Ptb

      Globally it depends, as always, on transport / market availability, rather than resource availability. $10 Asian prices were b/c Fukushima, that is now past, so $6 seems cheap in comparison. When transport vs demand controls prices, prices tell us little about production supply.

      In the US, there is great hope that LNG exports will bump the price a buck or two in the TX/LA locations. They may be disappointed. The $3 Henry hub range is the working assumption for medium term and this has been stanble in the fracking age, even though producers get less b/c – take a guess – pipelines.

      It is ironic, and foolish, that energetically questionable and environmentally bad fracked gas is sold for so little, encouraging its use. But as another article points out, they are just burning the stuff in many places, when it is a byproduct of oil/condensate. The USGovt sees fracked oil and gas as a strategic technology and will arrange for its subsidy. This is dumb but that’s the US situation. Eurasia in the next decade will have enough conventional supply from Central Asia, gulf, Russia, and SE asia, to grow 5-10% a year – all to replace coal pr simply to grow electric use in less industrialized places – and is just fighting (investing like mad) to hook it up.

    2. Yves Smith

      Nat gas wells (otherwise called shale gas, as in fracked gas) have EXTREMELY short productive lives. You get a lot in the first 18 months or so, and then it tails down to very little. We’ve discussed it at length.

      1. Svante

        So, if Williams and Spectra lines bring fracked gas into NYC (heck, the entire megolopolis) from the crescent of 13K wells in PA, to fuel how many new scores-of-thousands of boilers and brandy new power plants. And they keep directionally drilling and fracking tens-of-thousand of new wells throughout the Marcellus… and maybe get Great Britain to take some LNG from Boston, LI or Crown Point? How long before they elect someone who’ll frack up into NY? Wonder if Philly’s water supply is getting produced water brine in it yet (PA’s lied pretty continuously in the past?) Williams Constitution Pipeline “skirts” NYC’s water supply, that (FBE/ARO coated) pipe’s been stacked up there for, what, six years. Maybe Alabama could take more of us?

  9. Brian Davey

    This is my critique of the Oil Change International Report. While I agree with the need to rapidly phase out natural gas the OCI report makes no mention of the greater need to conserve energy cosumption/degrow the economy and makes claims for the technological progress which appear unfounded in view of critical shortages of minerals and also the enormous cost of battery storage across seasons. It is one thing to store energy from what is generated at midday in mid summer to use the same evening. It is another to store at scale across seasons which is the far greater issue.

  10. Sound of the Suburbs

    “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”

    Just imagine this attitude applied to climate change.

    Politicians can do stuff like this.

  11. Marshall Auerback

    Sorry, but I’ll stop calling natural gas a transitional fuel when the data supports that conclusion. It’s not like coal.

    Global nat gas use jumped 4.6% last year. That’s staggering growth.
    See the IEA’s Friday press release here:

    By my rough calculations, that means that in one year, global gas use increased jumped by about 3 million bbls of oil equivalent per day. That increase — again, just the increase — exceeds the amount of energy produced by ALL global solar.

    The math is the math.

  12. rrennel

    I intended to post a comment. Instead I read Brian Davey’s critique of the OCI report and it is consistent with, and far more comprehensive, than my views. I believe it should be read by everyone interested in this exceedingly complex subject. I don’t know that all of the information in his essay is fully valid, but I think overall it makes a persuasive argument that a “green” economy cannot be supported by today’s renewable energy technologies – as much as I wish this weren’t true.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      A “green” economy shrunk down to a size small enough that what renewables exist or will exist could support it . . . would be a “green” economy supported by renewables. Such an economy would have to be several times smaller than the economy we have today.

      Ideally, the Lower Class Majority would be able to seize power, conquer it, hold it and weaponize it for the purpose of beginning the Big Shrink at the TOP of the Class Structure and then working our way down the layers of the pyramid.

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