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Natural gas will help us slow global warming

13 July 2012

No matter how you drill it, using natural gas as an energy source is, according to a Cornell academic, a smart move in the battle against global climate change and a good transition step on the road toward low-carbon energy from wind, solar and nuclear power.

Professor Lawrence Cathles, a faculty member in Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, reviewed the most recent US government and industry data on natural gas 'leakage rates' during extraction, as well as recently developed climate models, in order to arrive at this conclusion.

His contention is that, no matter what time frame is considered, substituting natural gas energy for all coal and some oil production provides about 40 percent of the global warming benefit that a complete switch to low-carbon sources would deliver.

From a greenhouse point of view, says Professor Cathles, it would be better to replace coal electrical facilities with nuclear plants, wind farms and solar panels, asserting that gas is a natural transition fuel that could, in his words, be the "biggest stabilisation wedge" available to us.

His study - Assessing the Greenhouse Impact of Natural Gas - includes additional findings about expanding the use of natural gas as an energy source, and the climate impact of 'unconventional' gas drilling methods, including 'fracking' (hydraulic fracturing in shale formations).

Although a more rapid transition to natural gas from coal and some oil produces a greater overall benefit for climate change, Professor Cathles claims his 40-percent benefit figure remains, no matter how quickly the transition is made, and no matter what the effect of ocean modulation or other climate regulating forces.

And he also challenges the cited leakage rates claimed by critics of natural gas as a transition fuel - some being as high as 8 percent or more of total production during drilling (particularly so for fracking). More recent industry data and a critical examination of the US Environmental Protection Agency data supports leakage rates closer to 1.5 percent for both conventional and hydro-fractured wells, according to Professor Cathles.

“The most important message of the calculations reported here is that substituting natural gas for coal and oil is a significant way to reduce greenhouse forcing, regardless of how long the substitution takes,” Professor Cathles writes in his paper. “A faster transition to low-carbon energy sources would decrease greenhouse warming further, but the substitution of natural gas for other fossil fuels is equally beneficial in percentage terms no matter how fast the transition.”

The study is published in the most recent edition of the peer-reviewed journal Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems. Professor Cathles’ paper can also be read online here

Energy costs increasingly disadvantaging UK manufacturers
Some of the UK’s key manufacturing sectors are being put at a significant competitive disadvantage because energy and climate change policy is making electricity more expensive, according to a report by ICF International for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, which was published on Wednesday July 11.

Amongst a range of findings, the report indicates that steel makers in major competing countries such as Germany, Russia, India, USA and China can expect to pay considerably less for their electricity than steel makers in the UK. At the extreme, in 2020 UK steel makers can expect to pay over 280 percent more for the impact of government policies on electricity prices than American and Russian competitors.

It is a similar picture for manufacturers making cement, industrial gases and chlor-alkali, who provide the building blocks for thousands of products from energy efficient building materials, solar panels to electronics and fibre optics. The research indicates that the situation will become especially acute by 2020.

The Engineering Employers' Federation (EEF) was quick to respond, claiming that these findings prove conclusively that the absence of a global deal on climate change is creating a ‘beggar thy neighbour approach’, with different countries pursuing carbon reduction policies at different rates and cost, even within the EU, putting British industry at a major disadvantage.

EEF chief executive, Terry Scuoler says that while both the Treasury and DECC believe we must not outpace our competitors in loading costs onto hard-pressed businesses, this report shows that there is a mismatch between intent and reality. “The proposed package of measures announced by the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement are welcome but only last until 2015,” says Mr Scuoler. “Similar measures must be put in place for 2015-2020 to give manufacturers certainty and a level playing field with their competitors.”

Mr Scuoler wants the government to follow the German model by ensuring that the country invests in low carbon technology affordably and without burdening the most exposed industrial sectors with high costs.

Ian Rodgers of UK Steel says that however you cut this report, the findings paint an extremely worrying picture for the UK's steel industry, from now until 2020. “The fact is that we’re operating in a global marketplace but operating under different economic rules,” he says. ”UK government policy is making it more expensive to do business in the UK. Until the government’s compensation package for energy intensive industries is implemented and measures are put in place for 2015-2020 our sector's competitiveness is being slowly eroded.”

Despite the report clearly demonstrating that rolling-out renewable energy accounts for the biggest proportion of the increased cost, Mr Rodgers believes the government has yet to commit itself to helping offset these unilateral price increases and ensure the UK remains a competitive economy.”

In the UK, the cost of bringing in renewable energy constitutes a major component of these increased costs. The impact of the third phase of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, which will be much more stringent than the previous phases, will also have a significant impact. The government's unilateral Carbon Price Floor also adds additional costs not faced by competitors.

This has an impact on the competitiveness of domestic industries and investment in sectors vital to the emerging low carbon economy.

In a recent survey by EEF two-thirds of UK manufacturing companies saw an emerging low-carbon economy as an opportunity. However, in the same survey only one in eight viewed the UK as a favourable place to invest in this area.

The ability to pass on the cost of energy and carbon is limited for those sectors which compete in fiercely globally competitive markets such as steel. EEF has warned that, unabated, this could lead to “carbon leakage,” where production and investment is shifted to regions without carbon controls and where manufacturing costs are therefore cheaper.

Les Hunt

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