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Cheap and abundant natural gas is anathema to some environmental activists because it threatens to undercut the case for renewable electricity production technologies like wind and solar. Burning natural gas to make electricity produces about half of the greenhouse gases that burning coal does. Earlier this year, the National Energy Technology Laboratory released a report that concluded [PDF]:

Average natural gas baseload power generation has a life cycle GWP 50 percent lower (emphasis added) than average coal baseload power generation on a 20-year time horizon.

Hooray! Natural gas could be the bridge fuel to the no-carbon energy future. Not so fast. Natural gas is just too damned clean, says a new study based on climate computer simulations by researcher Tom Wigley at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. The press release accompanying the study explains:

Wigley’s new study attempts to take a more comprehensive look at the issue by incorporating the cooling effects of sulfur particles associated with coal burning and by analyzing the complex climatic influences of methane, which affects other atmospheric gases such as ozone and water vapor.

By running a series of computer simulations, Wigley found that a 50 percent reduction in coal and a corresponding increase in natural gas use would lead to a slight increase in worldwide warming for the next 40 years of about 0.1 degree Fahrenheit (less than 0.1 degree Celsius). The reliance on natural gas could then gradually reduce the rate of global warming, but temperatures would drop by only a small amount compared to the 5.4 degrees F (3 degrees C) of warming projected by 2100 under current energy trends…

“Whatever the methane leakage rate, you can’t get away from the additional warming that will occur initially because, by not burning coal, you’re not having the cooling effect of sulfates and other particles,” Wigley says. “This particle effect is a double-edged sword because reducing them is a good thing in terms of lessening air pollution and acid rain. But the paradox is when we clean up these particles, it slows down efforts to reduce global warming.”

Not to be too cynical, as usual the solution (solar and wind) remains what activists wanted all along.

Reason online, 9 September 2011