The myth of clean natural gas
The rise of fracking has transformed America's fossil fuels sector. With fracked oil and natural gas, the United States has once again become one of the world's top energy producers, nearly matching Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Natural gas in particular has gotten wide attention, in part because it is much more carbon-efficient than coal when burned to produce electricity. The slogan was that it could serve as a "bridge fuel" between dirty coal and clean renewables — and thus fight climate change, at least relative to continuing reliance on coal.
It's increasingly clear, however, that natural gas is already nearly past its point of maximum usefulness. It should simply be phased out as soon as possible — as soon as coal is gone, it should be next on the chopping block, if not right beside.
The first and biggest problem with natural gas is leaks. The fuel is largely composed of methane, and the smaller greenhouse gas footprint of the fuel relies on all that methane actually getting burned. If there are leaks at the wellhead, or the pipelines, or at the power plant, it cuts into the climate change benefit very quickly, because methane is tremendously effective at capturing heat. Measured over 20 years, a given quantity of methane captures about 86 times as much heat as the same amount of carbon dioxide.
It turns out there are a ton of such leaks. Comprehensive leak data hasn't been assembled, largely because the energy industry — and now the United States government, but I repeat myself — doesn't want it to be. However, it's a fairly simple procedure to fly a plane over the big drilling fields, test for methane concentrations, figure out a reasonable model of gas dispersal, and calculate a leak rate. Lo and behold, a recent study found (yet again) that leaks are so bad they basically cancel out the climate advantages of natural gas compared to coal (though natural gas still produces fewer poisonous fumes and heavy metals).
It's theoretically possible that all these leaks might be plugged. But the industry patently does not want the regulation required to achieve that, and it barely matters in any case. Natural gas is not that much better than coal — it's still releasing a great deal of carbon dioxide, after all.
And as David Roberts demonstrates, renewables are becoming price-competitive with fossil fuels much, much faster than even wild-eyed optimists predicted. Base solar and wind technology has been improving at warp speed — with steady progress in quantum dot solar cells and spectacularly huge wind turbines, for instance — while manufacturing, distribution, and installation industries have been spun up, ironed out their big kinks, and are continuing to improve. Renewable energy is now a major industry, even in the U.S. where President Trump's EPA has been working hand-in-glove with oil and gas goons. Over 250,000 people worked in solar alone in 2017, as compared to about 55,000 people in coal mining. (About 100,000 work in wind energy.)
Meanwhile, batteries are also becoming cheaper and better faster than most people anticipated. Other energy storage technologies — from flywheels, to pumping water uphill, to various heat storage mechanisms — are also coming along. That makes an all or mostly renewable energy grid (with a lot of legacy nuclear, probably) a lot more realistic, what with unreliable wind and darkness at night.
Every day it is more and more plausible that all fossil fuels could be purged out of the energy production system, even on narrowly profit-driven grounds — that is, not taking into account the clear and present danger climate change poses to our society as a whole. Right now the Trump administration is putting a heavy thumb on the scales against renewables. But by the time his administration is over, all the above trends will have advanced even further. At that point, we might as well just go all out for zero-carbon power.
Finally, there is a general political angle. Fossil fuels enable some of the worst human political impulses, both around the world and domestically. Vladimir Putin's Russia gets most of its exports from oil and gas, as does the monstrously repressive Saudi regime. American politics has long been poisoned by reactionary fossil fuel gazillionaires; the Koch family is just one in a long line. Businessmen who make their living paying other people to drill for nature's bounty will naturally tend to have strong views about property rights and the injustice of taxation.
So abolishing coal and natural gas — and soon after, oil — will have some salutary political effects as well: It will cut a major prop out from under dangerous reactionaries abroad, and the terminally corrupt conservative movement at home. Non-monstrous countries with big oil deposits, like Scotland and Norway, will just have to take the hit (luckily, both places have long since seen the writing on the wall, and have plenty other economic sectors).
It's hard to remember amid all the endless craziness of President Trump, but climate change is still the biggest problem facing the United States and the world. To address it, natural gas has to go. It can't happen soon enough.