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US gas bridge to renewables must be 'short' to meet climate goals: think tank

US natural gas use needs to peak within 17 years in order to meet the Obama administration's climate goals and prevent the worst impacts of global warming, a liberal think tank said in a report released Friday.

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"It is clear that a long-term heavy reliance on natural gas beyond 2030 is incompatible with the emissions reductions necessary to stave off the worst impacts of climate change," the Center for American Progress said. "To be compatible with a stable climate, therefore, the natural-gas bridge must be extremely short."

The report, which presents a dire environmental case against the expansion of US gas use, claims that increased investments in gas-fired power plants and pipelines could "crowd out" investments in renewable energy sources including wind, solar and wave power.

In fact, in order to protect public health and the environment, the report recommends preventing US gas infrastructure and capacity from being "overbuilt," and keeping gas' share of the total energy supply below 40% in order to achieve goals to combat climate change. The report suggests limits on natural gas exports which could trigger increased demand and cause infrastructure to be overbuilt, making that transition to renewable fuels more difficult.

While gas is necessary to drive dirtier-burning coal from the US market, its expansion "needs to be managed safely and sustainably and without overbuilding long-term electricity-generation capacity that would then need to be retired," the report states.

The US "must stop short of initiating a major new wave of investments in natural-gas turbines, which would be expensive and politically painful to power down later," the report states.

The report, authored by Darryl Banks, CAP's vice president for energy policy, and Gwynne Taraska, a CAP research associate and research director at George Mason University, makes a number of recommendations that may not be welcome to industry to hurry the pace to a lower carbon energy mix. These include wellhead taxes, increased royalties and fees for extraction on public lands and waters and liquefaction fees at export terminals, which they said would help fund investments in efficiency, clean energy and offsets for damage from climate change.

The report claims that while gas is aiding a push away from high-carbon fossil fuels, it creates a host of environmental problems, particularly methane emissions.

The Obama administration has a goal of reducing emissions from 2005 levels by 42% by 2030, and then by 80% in 2050 for climate stabilization.

According to the report, a 42% drop is equivalent to just over 3.334 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels. In 2011, combustion from coal, oil and natural gas resulted in over 5.277 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.

The report claims that if emissions from coal drop by 50% and oil emissions decline 30%, largely because of new fuel-economy standards, increased coal-to-gas switching and aggressive power plant regulations, total fossil-fuel related emissions would still be just over 3.716 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions, about 382 million mt over the 2030 goal.

"The use of natural gas therefore cannot expand unchecked," the report states. "Even minor increases in the near term mean that we will need to aggressively drive coal and oil from the US fuel mix."

--Brian Scheid,
--Edited by Carla Bass,