Photograph courtesy Daniel Foster/Flickr
Photograph courtesy Daniel Foster/Flickr

Can Natural Gas Be a Bridge to Clean Energy?

Join the debate over whether we should view natural gas as a transitional fuel that eventually gives way to renewables, or whether it is blocking the way forward.

As the shale gas boom progresses in North America, and as other nations seek to develop their own gas reserves, communities around the world are engaged in fierce debates over whether to allow fracking and expand global trade of natural gas. The promise of jobs and economic benefits come up against concerns about the environmental and health effects of natural gas development, along with skirmishes over land rights. (See related post about recent live event in Vancouver: "In British Columbia, Mulling the Role of Natural Gas in a Sustainable Energy Future," and get perspectives from the participants on Vimeo.)

But at the heart of these debates lies a broader question about where we should be focusing our efforts to meet energy demand. Can natural gas can be considered a lower-carbon "bridge" fuel, as U.S. President Barack Obama and many others have billed it, or is it simply a continuation of our dependence on fossil fuels? Oil and gas magnate T. Boone Pickens argues on his website, "Natural gas is not a permanent solution to ending our addiction to imported oil. It is a bridge fuel to slash our oil dependence while buying us time to develop new technologies that will ultimately replace fossil transportation fuels."

Natural gas is touted for its potential to reduce emissions by edging out, for example, coal as an electricity source and diesel as truck fuel. But the appeal of a cleaner, abundant fossil fuel source cuts both ways. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that, in the United States, gas threatens to edge out renewables as well. "Shale gas is a great advantage to the U.S. in the short term, for the next few decades," said MIT economist Henry Jacoby, lead author of the study. "But it is so attractive that it threatens other energy sources we ultimately will need." (See related story: "Shale Gas: A Boon That Could Stunt Alternatives, Study Says.")

In some areas, natural gas is most certainly making way for renewables. New gas-fired "flex" power plants in California, for example, are built to ramp up and down quickly to accommodate shifting supply from wind and solar. Facilities like these bolster the idea that the notion of a "bridge" is misguided; some in the energy and technology industries talk about natural gas as a "destination" fuel that we will need for many years to come. (See related story: "New 'Flexible' Power Plants Sway to Keep Up with Renewables.")

What do you think? Is natural gas a bridge, a barrier, or a destination fuel? Vote and comment below.