Bridge Fuel Fallacy

An argument that is made against fossil fuel divestment is that natural gas is a vital “bridge fuel” for transitioning into a low-carbon economy, and that consequently divestment is not apt. Indeed, natural gas contains half the carbon content of coal, and increased competition from natural gas, alongside strengthening environmental regulations and the retirement of old coal-fired plants, is the reason why carbon emissions and the market share of coal have decreased in the United States. In the absence of a comprehensive national energy policy, however, this “bridge fuel” claim is problematic.

President Obama’s “All-of-the-Above Energy Strategy,” which is essentially “Drill, Baby, Drill” in all but name, has been the reason for record domestic oil and natural gas production, despite the scientific consensus that developed nations, including the United States, must cut their carbon emissions 80% compared to 1990 levels by 2050 to prevent runaway climate change. Expanding natural gas capacity will lock-in future carbon emissions, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) explaining that four-fifths of global carbon emissions that are permitted until 2035 have already been locked-in by current energy infrastructure. The fact of the matter is that every dollar that goes into natural gas is a dollar that does not go into renewable energy. The “bridge fuel” argument is not genuine so long as renewable energy generation continues lagging behind that of natural gas capacity.

Natural gas may not even qualify as a bridge fuel given a recent study revealing significant leakages of methane in the natural gas supply chain 25-75% higher than official EPA estimates. The leakage of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas that traps 34 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a century, could negate the climate benefits of switching over from coal, and could even be worse than coal in the long run if leakages are rampant.

Another issue is the environmental impact of unconventional oil and natural gas production from the extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” Hydraulic fracturing is the process of injecting fluid into a wellbore to fracture the rock and allow natural gas and/or oil to flow out to the well. The process has been correlated with contaminated water resources and earthquakes. Concerned citizens have been rallying against the process, enacting municipal and state moratoriums and bans around the country. Skepticism of fracking is not the only reason that these political actions have emerged; one issue is the huge amount of water that is needed for the process. States such as California, which is suffering the worst drought ever recorded, have been concerned about fracking in light of evidence that it is mostly practiced in regions of high water stress. 

The economics of natural gas are also very problematic. Unlike conventional oil fields, which can last for decades, production of the average shale gas well in the Untied States decreases by 79-95% after 36 months. The most productive locations – “sweet spots” – meanwhile, have already been fully exploited. Maintaining current production levels would require drilling 7,2008,600 new wells per year, at a cost of $42-48 billion, while the industry continues relying on debt and lofty oil prices to remain viable. The picture becomes even more distressing when considering how, buying into the “100-year natural gas supply” myth, some members of Congress have expressed support for exporting natural gas for short-term geopolitical purposes.

While we understand the arguments that have been made for natural gas, we are skeptical given the imperative of shifting into a low-carbon economy as soon as possible, and the fact that time is running out. Natural gas is only appropriate in the short term for replacing generation that cannot immediately be replaced with renewable energy, as the United States continues to shift to a low-carbon economy. The aimless “All-of-the-Above Energy Strategy” does not make this imperative clear due to the lack of a comprehensive energy or climate change policy, and even President Obama himself, citing, “We’re not going to be able to burn it all,” (See: Stranded Assets) and reaffirming his commitment to the 2 degrees Celsius target, contradicted his own policy. Divestment from natural gas is warranted.