One of the next major challenges for renewable energy providers is to displace natural gas. As demand for oil and coal decreases, power generation is frequently being replaced by natural gas. In the United States, natural gas currently generates about 40% of the nation’s electricity supply, compared to about 20% for renewables. However, economic forces look promising for growth in renewables. For example, solar panels can deliver energy at $31 to $111 a megawatt-hour compared to $122 to $162 a megawatt-hour for natural gas.
The weight of historical inertia helps explain why natural gas currently has an edge over renewables. The U.S. already has approximately three million miles of pipeline transporting natural gas between facilities and consumers. The top five producers are Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Ohio. One of the major products is liquefied natural gas (LNG), a natural gas that has been cooled to a liquid state at sub-zero temperatures for storage and shipping in areas where pipelines are not feasible. The U.S. has been a net exporter of LNG since 2017 due to a significant increase in domestic natural gas production. The majority of LNG exports went to South Korea, Japan, Spain, Mexico, and the United Kingdom.
Natural gas production has a devastating effect on the environment, particularly the practice of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Fracking is the process of injecting liquid, usually a mixture of water and chemicals, into the ground to force open cracks in order to extract oil or gas. Fracking requires great quantities of water, and when the wastewater is injected back into the ground, it can cause small earthquakes and contaminate the surrounding area with toxic chemicals. Another significant impact of natural gas production is methane emissions. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. When compared to carbon dioxide over 100 years, methane is more effective at trapping heat by a factor of 25. According to estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2018, methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems, including abandoned wells, were responsible for 29% of total U.S. methane emissions and 3% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In 2015-2016, a prolonged leak from a processed natural gas (PNG) well in Aliso Canyon, California was the greatest single accidental release of greenhouse gases in U.S. history. The release prompted the evacuation of 5,790 households.
Finally, there are significant public health risks to communities located near natural gas infrastructure. People in these communities can be exposed to benzene, a known carcinogen, as well as higher levels of smog-creating pollution that aggravates respiratory diseases. Communities of color are disproportionately vulnerable to these public health risks. Union Hill, a majority black community in Buckingham County, VA, was targeted as a prime location for the Buckingham Compressor Station. This facility, a key component of LNG infrastructure, would have been less than a mile from Union Hill and exposed the community to elevated levels of pollution. Fortunately for the residents, a legal challenge from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Southern Environmental Law Center, and Friends of Buckingham successfully overturned the air permit for the Compressor Station.
In recent years, natural gas has become a losing proposition with increasing frequency. One of the highest profile cases is the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). Announced in 2014, this joint Duke Energy and Dominion Energy project would have run through West Virginia and Virginia on route to North Carolina. After years of costly delays brought on by legal battles and economic uncertainties, the ACP was cancelled in July 2020. One of the legal battles was over the above-mentioned Buckingham Compressor Station. The final blow came when the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana overturned the federal permits for waterbody and wetland crossings. In September 2019, Duke Energy pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Dominion Energy made the same pledge in February 2020. If the public and their stakeholders hold these utilities accountable, their pledges will require a significant reduction in both natural gas production and investments in natural gas infrastructure.
What can one do at the individual level to reduce natural gas consumption, and encourage the growth of renewable energy? If you are a stakeholder in an energy utility, write and/or call that utility to express your support for renewables. Also, you can submit letters to the editor to local newspapers. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has an excellent guide on how to write letters to the editor here. Non-profits like the Sierra Club, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and Climate First! are always in need of volunteers, and often have action campaigns specifically focused on fighting oil and gas development. Working together, we can ensure a cleaner and greener future for ourselves and future generations.