Skip to Content

Clean Gas

Here is the policy we need to exploit our natural-gas resources.
October 20, 2009

Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel–it produces half as much carbon pollution as coal, and one-third less than oil per unit burned. Recent advances make it affordable to develop the natural gas found in shale deposits, so we have more of this resource than was previously thought: at current production rates, there could be enough recoverable fuel to supply the United States for the next 90 years (see “Natural Gas Changes the Energy Map”). This offers an opportunity to use natural gas as a bridge to a clean-energy economy that relies on efficiency, renewable power sources, and low-carbon fossil fuels.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June, aimed at reducing the pollution that contributes to global warming, would increase demand for natural gas. The bill requires power plants and other industrial facilities to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and similar pollutants by allotting them a diminishing number of sellable “allowances” to release these gases. This system would increase the price of electricity generated at old, inefficient power plants fired by dirty coal–making electricity from newer, cleaner, more efficient natural-­gas plants more competitive.

The House legislation would also increase investments in wind, solar, and other sources of renewable electricity. Some of these power sources are intermittent–they generate electricity only while the wind blows or the sun shines, for example. Natural gas can provide backup power when these technologies are unable to generate electricity.

Natural gas could even replace petroleum fuels for buses, heavy trucks, and fleet vehicles. Proposed legislation would require federal agencies to buy alternative-­fueled vehicles for their fleets; it would also create economic incentives for companies to purchase heavy vehicles fueled by natural gas. As a result of these policies, cleaner domestically produced natural gas would replace some of the dirtier imported petroleum we use today.

Other policies, too, could help expand demand for natural gas and decrease the pollution implicated in global warming. The starting price of pollution allowances should be raised to $14 per ton, which would come even closer to equalizing the price of electricity generated from coal and gas. We should create incentives to retire aging, inefficient, dirty coal-fired power plants and replace them with renewable and low-carbon electricity. And we need to conduct research on more efficient turbines, effective strategies for capturing and sequestering carbon emissions, and better ways to store power from renewable sources.

We must also adress the problems associated with “fracking,” a process involved in drilling for shale gas, which can pollute air and water. Any program to increase demand for natural gas must include additional environmental safeguards, such as comprehensive scientific analysis and a requirement that gas producers report their use of toxic chemicals.

Expanding the market for natural gas would increase America’s energy independence, reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, and create jobs. None of these benefits, however, will occur without comprehensive legislation.

Daniel J. Weiss is a senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Russian servicemen take part in a military drills
Russian servicemen take part in a military drills

How a Russian cyberwar in Ukraine could ripple out globally

Soldiers and tanks may care about national borders. Cyber doesn't.

Death and Jeff Bezos
Death and Jeff Bezos

Meet Altos Labs, Silicon Valley’s latest wild bet on living forever

Funders of a deep-pocketed new "rejuvenation" startup are said to include Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner.

ai learning to multitask concept
ai learning to multitask concept

Meta’s new learning algorithm can teach AI to multi-task

The single technique for teaching neural networks multiple skills is a step towards general-purpose AI.

mouse engineered to grow human hair
mouse engineered to grow human hair

Going bald? Lab-grown hair cells could be on the way

These biotech companies are reprogramming cells to treat baldness, but it’s still early days.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.