Natural gas will be a leader in reducing U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the next several decades, mostly by replacing older, inefficient coal plants with combined-cycle gas generation, according to a comprehensive study issued Friday by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study group.

The group, comprised of 30 MIT faculty members, researchers and graduate students, published the interim findings in “The Future of Natural Gas: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study,” an 83-page report presented to lawmakers and the Obama administration. A full report is to be released later this year.

The two-year study, managed by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), examined the scale of U.S. natural gas reserves and the potential of gas to reduce GHG emissions. Based on the work of the multidisciplinary team, with advice from a board of 16 leaders from industry, government and environmental groups, the report examines the future of gas through 2050.

“Much has been said about natural gas as a bridge to a low-carbon future, with little underlying analysis to back up this contention,” said MITEI Director Ernest J. Moniz, who co-authored the study. “The analysis in this study provides the confirmation: natural gas truly is a bridge to a low-carbon future.”

The report offers specific proposals for legislative and regulatory policies, as well as recommendations for actions that the energy industry may pursue on its own, to maximize the impact of gas to mitigate GHG emissions.

The study also examines ways to control the environmental impacts that could result from an expansion in producing and using gas, especially in the electric power sector.

The “overarching conclusions” in the study are that “abundant global natural gas resources imply a big expansion in natural gas use, with especially large growth in electricity generation.” In addition, the MIT group sees gas assuming “an increasing share of the U.S. energy mix over the next several decades, with the large unconventional resource playing a key role.”

The share of gas in the domestic energy mix “is likely to be even larger in the near to intermediate term in response to carbon dioxide emissions constraints. In the longer term, however, stringent emissions constraints would limit the role of all fossil fuels, including natural gas, unless capture and sequestration are competitive with other low-carbon alternatives.”

In addition, “the character of the global gas market could change dramatically over the time horizon of this study,” said researchers.

What the report found is that if the electric power sector shifted to more gas use, U.S. CO2 emissions could be reduced by more than 10%. In addition, the expansion in domestic shale gas resources is enough to nudge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency toward streamlining the rules to convert more domestic vehicles to run on natural gas.

Like two previous MIT reports on coal and nuclear energy, the gas study “is grounded in science, supported by objective analysis and designed to inform future energy options,” MIT officials said.

MIT’s researchers recommended that:

The American Clean Skies Foundation, which promotes the use of domestic natural gas, helped fund the study. The MIT study also was underwritten, in part, by Hess Corp. and Colombia’s National Hydrocarbons Agency.

“These findings make a compelling and timely argument for a greater role for natural gas in our nation’s clean energy future,” said America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) CEO Regina Hopper. “We also support the report’s recommendation that the US. remove regulatory and policy barriers to the development of natural gas as a transportation fuel.”

Hopper said the ANGA hopes policymakers will read and consider the report’s recommendation for increased natural gas use “as they develop plans to help our country move to a secure, economically beneficial and cleaner way of using energy.”

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