Analysis: A global natural gas boom alone won't slow climate change

ByH-Holger Rodgner for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Economics analyst H-Holger Rodgner posits that without a price on carbon emissions, gas could edge out nuclear and renewable energy—increasing overall emissions.

The ongoing shale gas revolution in the United States, dubbed a “game changer” by many experts, is the result of a surge of innovation that is extracting huge amounts of natural gas from shale deposits once thought to be inaccessible. It has reversed a decade of declining domestic gas production and brought enormous economic benefits to American consumers and businesses: natural gas prices that dropped by two-thirds within 12 months after widespread fracking began and have risen only slightly since then, hundreds of thousands of new jobs, a renaissance of investment in new manufacturing capacities, and improved energy security. The rise of shale gas has had an environmental benefit as well—greatly reduced carbon dioxide emissions, because generating electricity by burning natural gas emits less than half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal.

The US success story has stimulated the interest of numerous countries around the world. After all, shale is the most abundant form of sedimentary rock on Earth. Global energy assessments report quantities of shale gas several times that of “conventional” gas—which can be extracted with standard drilling alone. Although the extent of the US experience is unlikely to be replicated elsewhere, and US estimates of economically recoverable quantities remain a matter of debate, shale gas has the potential to become a widely accessible global fuel.

What would that mean for Earth’s climate? A study that my colleagues and I recently conducted suggests that abundant, cheap natural gas would lead to substantial reductions in coal use. But without a price on carbon emissions, gas could also edge out nuclear and renewable energy—increasing overall emissions.

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