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Big Oil Prepares to Defend Big Gas as Climate Week Begins

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Big Oil Prepares to Defend Big Gas as Climate Week Begins

  • Gas’s role in energy divides activists, politicians, Big Oil
  • The fuel is killing dirtier coal but is a major carbon emitter
Oil Boom Shifts The Landscape Of Rural North Dakota

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images 

Oil Boom Shifts The Landscape Of Rural North Dakota

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images 

Championed by Big Oil as the fastest way to reduce emissions and reviled by environmentalists who say the world needs to ditch all fossil fuels -- the debate over natural gas may be one of the controversial aspects of climate change.

The arguments will get an airing as politicians, activists and business leaders gather for Climate Week in New York. On Monday, CEOs of the world’s largest oil companies are expected to speak at an event organized by the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative where they’ll likely defend the idea that gas is integral to a low-carbon future.

Here are six key arguments about gas, starting with the case for the fuel:

1. Gas is killing coal

When burned cleanly, gas releases about half as much carbon as coal. Gas has been on a coal-killing advance across the U.S. power market for the last decade.

Coal Killer

Natural gas is replacing coal as the main source of U.S. power generation

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

2. Gas helps bring down emissions

Cleaner electricity generation means the U.S. economy can still grow and produce lower emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions have been on a flat-to-downward trend for the past decade.

Easing Emissions

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have decelerated to mid-1990s levels

Note: Data is million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

3. Gas will be affordable long-term

Thanks to fracking, which releases fossil fuels from hitherto impermeable shale rock, American gas is so abundant that producers can’t find enough domestic demand and are rushing to export. That means local prices are cheap and look like they’ll stay that way.

U.S. natural gas prices have plunged due to fracking

And here’s the case against gas:

1. Gas means carbon is unavoidable

While carbon dioxide emitted from gas-fired power is lower than coal (see above), locking in gas as a fuel means those emissions won’t go to zero any time in the foreseeable future. Indeed, as the U.S. becomes increasingly addicted to gas, emissions from the fuel are rising in absolute terms, overtaking coal.

Deal With the Devil

Natural gas is a rising source of carbon dioxide emissions

NOTE: Data is million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

2. Gas is being wasted

Excess gas from oil wells is burned off in flaring, releasing carbon dioxide. The amount of gas being wasted has surged in the U.S. due to the fracking boom, as pipeline capacity can’t keep pace.

Up in Smoke

The amount of gas wasted in the U.S. is surging due to a fracking boom

Source: Rystad Energy

NOTE: Data covers Colorado, North Dakota, New Mexico, Texas.

3. Gas leaks

Another problem is gas leaking from pipelines and processing plants into the atmosphere. Methane is 84 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. It’s the “Achilles heel” of the gas industry, according to Susan Dio, chairman of BP Plc’s U.S. division. There’s been a substantial rise in global methane levels over the past 10 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A Cornell University study published in August traced the extra emissions to fracking in North America.

Danger Gas