Perspective: Limiting Gas Carries Economic, Enviro Costs

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That natural gas will play a role in any future US and global energy mix is certain, but how that plays out in coming decades is not clear as the energy transition has become overly politicized and the economic and environmental ramifications of alternatives to gas are little understood. A book steered by Rice University's Baker Institute fellows takes a hard look at the obstacles to net-zero carbon goals by 2050. Not only is it a bridge too far given current technologies, says lead author/editor Michelle Michot Foss, the sheer scale and size of what will be needed to replace fossil fuels in the energy mix could scuttle the effort. "That really is the dirty little secret," Michot Foss contends. Gas and coal will remain the bedrock for much of the world's energy because wind and solar and other renewable resources cannot be scaled up sufficiently to replace them. And even if you could the cost and lack of reliability would doom the effort, she told Energy Intelligence. The book Monetizing Natural Gas in the New "New Deal" Economy is the work of two Baker Institute researchers, Michot Foss, a fellow in energy, minerals and materials, and Anna Mikulska, a nonresident fellow in energy studies; and energy economist Gurcan Gulen. It is a stark challenge to growing consensus that rising temperatures have to be -- or can be -- countered by virtually eliminating the use of fossil fuels, including natural gas, in power generation unless it can be done with a net carbon-zero impact. Instead, the authors contend that gas -- a "critical fuel and feedstock" -- will remain a mainstay in the global energy mix at least for several decades. The book takes a sprawling view of the difficulty in transitioning global energy from the well-established track it's been on for two centuries, as well as questions the need and wisdom for such a radical transition. Hard Renewable Limits? The world is of two minds when it comes to the energy transition, the authors suggest. "Old World" wealthier nations, including the US, push the gospel of decarbonization by substituting alternative energy sources -- a belief "rooted in sociopolitical preferences and declining cost of equipment ... resulting [in] wide uncertainties surrounding future gas use in the power generation mix." However, this "obsession" ignores the full costs involved and resistance to building massive transmission lines to transport power from utility-scale projects mainly built in remote sites. Nonetheless, unrealistic expectations for renewables has given rise to a prevailing sense that fossil fuel industries are "a dying breed ... with serious implications for investment in the legacy natural gas businesses and, crucially, underlying oil and gas resource development and delivery." This was seen when the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report stating that to meet zero-net carbon goals by 2050, producers would immediately have to stop exploring for and developing new oil and gas resources (NGW May24'21). But while that sent shock waves through the sector, Michot Foss notes that the IEA net-zero conclusion "is not a prediction -- it’s a warning." Furthermore, the authors say opinions regarding what renewables can accomplish "are driven by climate activism and heightened sensibilities stemming from the political correctness that surrounds climate and the push for environment, social, governance disclosures, especially vis-a-vis legacy oil and gas operations and businesses." Coming Reality Check? Despite this bandwagon effect, reality will eventually prevail, Michot Foss predicts. For instance, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) widely touted as a way to green up gas-fired power and LNG export projects is not very efficient when teamed with gas-fueled projects as the flue gasses are too clean already, she notes. Conversely, CCS works most efficiently when teamed with coal generation and refineries. But the chief obstacle to attaining a net carbon-free global economy by 2050 is that the "New World" economies are not of the same mind and will do what they must to provide power to their burgeoning populations. So where does Michot Foss see the energy transition at midcentury? "Pretty much where it is today," she said, with a mix of power sources conducive for a given region. And this will of necessity include natural gas and coal, with the ultimate goal to "burn it as cleanly as possible." Tom Haywood, Houston

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