12/09/2013 02:36 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Putting the Brakes on Natural Gas

Throughout New England, exuberance for natural gas is on the rise, with numerous proposals clamoring for new pipelines and power plants in the region. Here's why that excitement is problematic, for our health, our economy and, particularly, our climate.

Although cheap natural gas is closing dirtier coal plants in New England and across the country, natural gas is not the solution to the climate crisis over the long term.

Stabilizing the climate requires reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 80 percent by 2050. Expanding our natural gas capacity in New England won't get us there. On the contrary, we need a regional plan to limit new gas expansion, reduce gas emissions through innovation and make sure that any new gas expansion helps pay for a truly cleaner, non-fossil fuel future.

Despite what the natural gas industry would like us to think, natural gas is not clean. While cleaner-burning than coal and oil, gas won't reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the long term without mitigation measures. Recent influential studies by top scientists have confirmed that the benefits of natural gas in reducing GHG emissions are fleeting; ramping up gas to replace retiring power plants, as many in the region are proposing, would yield no significant long-term GHG reductions in the next 100 years.

The recently-released IPCC report shows that methane, which leaks from natural gas pipelines and wells, is a far more potent greenhouse gas than previously thought -- with 34 times the heat trapping intensity of CO2.

Natural gas expansion also fails as a short-term fix. New gas power plants have a life span of fifty years and new pipelines will be around even longer. If we rush to build this long-lived infrastructure, we lock in natural gas and lock out clean, renewable solutions like solar and offshore wind, and undermine the climate benefits of replacing coal plants in the first place.

And make no mistake: New gas proposals require hundreds of billions of dollars of ratepayer investment. This investment supports a status quo adverse to climate and public welfare, and squanders scarce capital that is better directed to new technologies needed to reduce emissions.

Instead of massive increases in natural gas, we need to scale up no-carbon resources now to further reduce their costs, encourage technological innovation, and transition rapidly to a low-carbon energy system.

We have faced this dilemma before in New England when we restructured the electric industry. We developed solutions that are good for the climate, good for the economy, and enhanced our region's quality of life. Small systems benefit charges (SBCs) in New England electric bills support energy efficiency and renewable energy investment. They have lowered demand, reduced pollution, created tens of thousands of jobs and dropped customer bills, securing billions of dollars in savings and benefits.

It's time once again for a regional commitment to keep New England on the forefront of clean energy and climate progress.

First, any proposed new natural gas infrastructure must be subject to rigorous scrutiny and right-sized to conform to climate requirements. Such analysis must include transparent evaluation of: (1) the life-cycle GHG emissions compared to other alternatives; (2) the claimed economic savings from the project, and (3) a demonstration of how the proposal will comply with state mandates for GHG reductions, like the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act.

Second, a system transformation charge (STC) should be imposed on any natural gas expansion. Designed similar to existing SBCs, this would be invested in innovation and deployment of no-carbon technologies to meet state climate goals. It will come from future shared savings from new gas investment. The revenues would be scaled to increase consistently with the regional climate stabilization goals and shared strategies.

Third, the region must develop a more cohesive approach to meet climate goals. This strategy must deploy lower carbon resources, energy efficiency, more renewables and new technologies to reduce emissions (including enduringly capturing carbon) at power plants and among power users.

This is a model that has worked before, and it will work again. We have a choice right now about whether to jump on the runaway gas train and put our climate at risk, or to put the brakes on gas expansion and exploit it in the short term to fund our clean energy future. New England, of all places, has the courage and foresight to get gas right.

This post was co-authored with Lew Milford, President and Founder of the Clean Energy Group in Montpelier, VT.