Natural Gas: Most Significant Solution for Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Quick Facts

  • In April 2015 U.S. electric power sector CO2 emissions were lower than at any point since April 1988. It’s no coincidence that in April 2015, natural gas also led the U.S. electricity mix for the first time ever, comprising 31% of electricity generation.
  • The Brookings Institution has demonstrated that combined-cycle natural gas turbines cut 2.6 times more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than wind and four times more than solar.
  • Methane emissions from natural gas production have declined 38 percent since 2005.

Natural gas offers significant climate change benefits, as carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas are about half those of coal. Because natural gas is increasingly replacing coal in electricity generation, U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the electric utility sector have declined to the lowest level since 1988. Electric utilities have taken advantage of clean and affordable natural gas, allowing U.S. GHG emissions to fall more than any other country since 2006.

The positive impacts of the natural gas revolution haven’t gone unnoticed. According to The Breakthrough Institute: “… since 1950, natural gas and nuclear prevented 36 times more carbon emissions than wind, solar, and geothermal. Nuclear avoided the creation of 28 billion tons of carbon dioxide, natural gas 26 billion, and geothermal, wind, and solar just 1.5 billion.” And according to the Brookings Institution, the best way to cut greenhouse gas emissions is through switching to natural gas-fired power plants. In fact, combined-cycle natural gas turbines cut 2.6 times more CO2 emissions than wind and four times more than solar. That’s because even though renewables avoid emissions when they produce electricity, they only do so when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. By comparison, natural gas reduces CO2 emissions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Thanks in part to the benefits of natural gas, the United States has reduced greenhouse gas emissions at a greater rate than Europe and other developed countries. The natural gas industry is proud to provide a real and meaningful solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through private sector investment in a market economy, rather than ineffective top-down, command-and-control government policies. Yet the federal government is moving ahead with costly regulations that could undermine the climate benefits associated with a thriving natural gas industry. The proposed top-down, one-size-fits-all  methane regulationsfrom both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will substantially increase recordkeeping burdens and compliance costs, rather than focusing on encouraging natural gas development and the climate benefits it delivers. Both agencies are implementing costly regulations to chase a very small percentage, 1.07%, of emissions on the production side while putting at risk GHG benefits on the consumer end that are ten times greater.

While increased natural gas use offers meaningful solutions for climate change, many have raised concerns that methane leakage from natural gas production and distribution could erase the GHG benefits natural gas provides for electricity production. There have been numerous studies of methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems in recent years, many of which appear to have different results. Most recent peer-reviewed studies show an emissions rate between 1.1% and 1.5% of total gas produced, well below the 3.2% that the Environmental Defense Fund states is necessary to deliver climate change benefits. Even with these low leakage rates, industry is constantly striving to improve further. Methane emissions at the wellhead have decreased by 21% since 1990. Methane emissions from oil and natural gas exploration and production are just 1.07% of total U.S. GHG emissions as measured in carbon dioxide equivalents and taking into account the greater potency of methane. That small amount of emissions at the production end clearly pales in comparison to the climate benefits natural gas offers at the consumer end.

Although there are greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas production, the emission reductions in the electricity generating sector more than make up for them. Natural gas used for electricity generation delivers full lifecycle benefits, from production to end use, over coal, with 42-53% less emissions. The benefit is mainly due to lower carbon intensity and the higher efficiency of natural gas power generators. The electricity generation sector is by far the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions–more than ten times greater than those from production. Natural gas producers continue to reduce those small emissions, but recent federal regulation that would constrain production could put the larger climate change benefits from natural gas at risk.