To really cut down on greenhouse-gas emissions, natural gas must eventually follow in the footsteps of the coal industry by adopting technology to capture its carbon emissions, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Thursday.
"Eventually, if we're going to get really low carbon emissions, natural gas, just like coal, would need to have carbon capture to be part of that," Moniz said to reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. "But that looks to be quite a ways off. In the meantime, gas will be part of the solution."
Moniz's comments are significant because he explicitly states what many energy and environment experts have routinely said: Natural gas, which burns half as many carbon emissions as coal and is thus heralded as a cleaner fossil fuel, must eventually also reduce its carbon emissions in a world committed to combating global warming. After all, half as many carbon emissions is still more than no carbon emissions, which is what nuclear power and renewable energy sources provide the country.
Carbon capture and sequestration technology, which is most often associated with coal and nicknamed "clean-coal" technology, is still prohibitively expensive and is commercially operating in just a few plants throughout the entire world. In the United States, Moniz cites eight projects that are successfully deploying the technology, but many of those are industrial factories, not power plants.
"For those industrial facilities, the cost of carbon capture is much, much lower than for power plants," Moniz said.
At the direction of President Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency is working on rules to clamp down on greenhouse-gas emissions of both current and future coal and natural-gas power plants. Republicans have labeled these rules a "war on coal" since coal stands to hurt the most from these tougher standards. Left largely unaddressed is the fate of natural gas under this regulatory regime.
Despite repeated questioning on this, Moniz didn't address whether EPA's regulations could help drive down the costs of carbon-capture technology.
"Getting the costs down makes the policy a lot easier," Moniz said instead.
Moniz said that concerns about methane leaks from natural-gas production and use do not negate its climate benefits over coal. Methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
"My look at the evidence to date suggests this in no way eliminates the significant advantage of gas over coal for CO2 emissions," Moniz said.
In 2011, coal accounted for 42 percent of the nation's electricity and natural gas accounted for 25 percent. The former figure is dropping as the latter goes up, largely in response to the one-two punch of low natural-gas prices and tougher environmental rules.
Obama has always been overtly supportive of natural gas and more critical of oil and coal. In recent weeks, he has been especially bullish on this plentiful resource as he tours the country talking about the economy.
"Since the cheaper cost of natural gas is a huge boost to our businesses, we should develop even more, as long as we do it in a way that protects our air and water for our children and future generations," Obama said. He then continued, going off script from his prepared remarks: "But we can do that. We've got the technology to do it."
Moniz echoed that sentiment at the breakfast Thursday. He said concerns about whether hydraulic fracturing, a technology that is key to accessing the shale formations but is controversial for its potential environmental impact, were being addressed.
"I still have not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater," Moniz said. "Now, clearly, in fracking operations, there have been things like methane leakage."
He added that while concerns exist about water contamination and local air quality, they can and are being addressed.
"I think there has been a lot of progress," Moniz said of the overall environmental impact of fracking. "But certainly if the production continues to grow, that also raises the stakes to making sure we have best practices applied all the time."