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The Good and Bad of Abundant Natural Gas

Plentiful natural gas could help reduce carbon emissions, but it could also delay zero-carbon technology.
June 18, 2009

The good news is that the United States has plenty of natural gas, according to a new report described in the New York Times. The bad news is that the carbon-emissions targets in the energy bill working its way through the United States House of Representatives didn’t take this into account.

According to the report, there’s 35 percent more accessible natural gas in the ground than previously thought, in large part because new technologies have made it possible to get at more of the gas. This tech has led to a boom in natural-gas supplies, and that seems to be why oil and gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens has been talking up using natural gas for powering vehicles: he could be looking for a new market for all of this gas to keep prices from plummeting in the future.

The fact that there’s a lot of natural gas is good for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Natural gas produces about half of the carbon emissions of coal when used to make electricity. Switching to natural gas could provide a relatively cheap way to meet emissions targets, especially in the near term. And that’s a great thing. Except for this: natural gas can’t take us all the way to an 80 percent emissions-reduction target, which is where scientists say we should be by 2050, if not sooner. Some experts are concerned that natural gas will allow utilities and others to put off investments in research and development needed to meet the stricter emissions goals.

There are a couple of potential solutions. One is to mandate more use of renewable energy, but economists argue that such mandates are expensive: it’s better to let a market sort out which technologies to use. Another potential solution is to make the early-emissions targets in the bill more challenging, pushing investment, but this could be politically tricky. There are a lot of uncertainties about this natural gas; some experts warn that we shouldn’t count on it. The best solution is probably increased federal funding for research, especially basic research into things like the physics of excitons in solar-cell materials. Then even if companies fail to plan ahead, the breakthroughs that they need to meet later targets could be ready for them.

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