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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

International Energy Agency Economist Warns Against Increased Reliance on Natural Gas

Faith Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, spoke to Environment 360 recently about some of his concerns.  He had some interesting things to say about development of shale gas:
e360: You mentioned natural gas, and I know a second concern of yours is the real boom in unconventional natural gas development, particularly fracking, which is giving us cheap and abundant gas. If this boom continues, what impact will that have on the development of renewable energy resources? 
Birol: There is definitely an unconventional gas boom in the U.S. and in Canada, Australia. And I expect this to happen in China very soon. Because the Chinese government has a very strong plan, in their 12th Five-Year Plan, to increase the share of gas in their energy mix. Elsewhere in the world, many countries have about 25 percent share of gas in their energy mix, and in China it is only 4 percent. And coal is 67 percent. So in order to have more diversification, and lessen local pollution issues, China is going to push the use of shale gas. So there will be more and more gas coming. And when gas replaces coal, this is definitely a good thing to reduce CO2 emissions, as we have seen in the United States. Recently, in the last five years, we have seen a substantial decline in U.S. CO2 emissions mainly as a result of a.) replacing coal, and b.) new efficiency standards in the transportation sectors for the vehicles. So this was good. 
However, there are two issues. One, shale gas extraction should be done in the proper way. We have recently released a report which we called “Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas.” Because doing the extraction process of shale gas, if it is not done properly, there will be methane coming to the atmosphere. And this is another important, dangerous greenhouse gas, which is a very potent one. So therefore, the suggestion is that the operators, the companies, as suggested by us, should target methane venting and minimize the flaming. This is one issue. 
The second one is on renewables. The growth of renewable energy today — wind, solar, biomass — is mainly driven by government support. And I hope that governments will continue to support renewables and in some cases gas can be complementary to renewables. We have seen this in the U.S. In the last six years, electricity generated by natural gas in the U.S. increased around 300 terawatt-hours and at the same time renewables increased by about 100 terawatt-hours, which was a doubling from five years ago. So they can both go together, but governments have to be very careful. They shouldn’t be misled with cheap gas prices and reduce their support to renewables
Of course there are examples to cut the support if it doesn’t make sense. But overall, I think that supporting renewables is very important as the climate changes. Because gas alone will never, ever bring us to a 2-degree trajectory unless it is supported by renewables, energy efficiency, and carbon capture and storage.
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