A Bridge Too Far: Building Off-Ramps on the Shale Gas Superhighway
41 Pages Posted: 18 May 2013 Last revised: 15 Feb 2014
Date Written: May 16, 2013
Energy policy in the United States is once again at a crossroads. Hydraulic fracturing combined with the breakthrough technology of horizontal drilling has opened up a vast store of natural gas deposits formerly locked deep beneath the earth. Experts are calling natural gas a foundational fuel for the 21st century and a bridge to a cleaner, more climate-friendly energy future. At the same time the pace of climate change is accelerating, the damage to human and natural communities is mounting, and the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic consequences later this century is closing fast. We cannot negotiate the laws of physics. Bold and decisive action is needed to decarbonize the energy sector with all deliberate speed.
Depending on how it is used, natural gas could either be part of the solution to climate change or it could perpetuate our dependence on fossil fuels. At the combustion stage gas is a less carbon intensive fuel than coal. But whether it is better for the climate depends on how well its life cycle methane emissions, which are at present inadequately quantified, can be controlled. However, even with negligible methane leakage, a massive investment in a new — albeit environmentally preferable — fossil fuel infrastructure threatens to stall the rapidly emerging markets for renewables and stifle efficiency enhancements. Based on the weight of evidence amassed by the world’s leading climate scientists, we have reached a critical juncture for investments in the electricity sector. What happens in the next five, ten, and twenty years is vastly more important than what happens in the next fifty to a hundred years.
This article argues that gas cannot provide a bridge to a safe climate. Absent a coherent set of policies to insure that gas does not crowd out renewables, we face another carbon lock-in that will take a half-century to undo. To avoid this dead end, we propose four “off ramp” policies. First, Congress must adopt a graduated carbon tax that helps reduce the deficit, provides rebates to low-income taxpayers, and invests a modest amount in clean energy. While implementing this tax may not be politically feasible at the moment, the merits of a well-designed tax on carbon pollution are too compelling to ignore forever. A number of countries have adopted carbon taxes including Australia, China, Finland, India and Japan. Second, the energy playing field must be leveled, which requires ending subsidies for fossil fuels, closing regulatory loopholes that favor gas, and providing tax and other incentives to allow quicker and deeper penetration of renewables into the electricity market. Third, energy efficiency must be ramped up through cost-effective measures with high rates of return and job creation benefits. Fourth, gas and renewables should be integrated in a complementary fashion through long-term planning and better forecasting, widespread deployment of smart grid technologies, and using wind and solar as hedges against gas price volatility.
Finally we call on President Obama to make good on his pledge to “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” The primary responsibility of the president is to protect Americans from existential threats like climate change. President Obama’s legacy may well be defined by how vigorously he uses the authority he already has under the Clean Air Act and other laws to lower GHG emissions, and how well he uses the bully pulpit to galvanize public support to dislodge a recalcitrant Congress and chart a new energy path for the nation and the world.
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