The saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” aptly describes the relationship between natural gas and environmentalists. While gas is applauded by clean energy advocates for putting the screws to coal and nuclear power, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and methane emissions keep it from “best friend forever” status among environmentalists.

Natural gas used to be called a “bridge fuel” until something better, read cleaner, could be found. But North America’s growing abundance of gas now has many thinking longer term.

“Do we see natural gas as a bridge fuel? I think it depends upon whether the industry is going to get serious about dealing with their methane issues because I do not believe that we’ve got the full story on that yet, and I think that’s an area where we have a great deal of concern,” Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Executive Director Stephen Smith told NGI.

“But we are very much enjoying the effect of gas and what it’s doing to the coal and nuclear industry. We see that as a very positive benefit for clean energy overall.”

In his work with electric utilities in the Southeast when they are developing their integrated resource plans, Smith said he’s seen the growing popularity of gas first-hand as power generators have become less skeptical of the staying power of shales.

“When we were doing integrated resource planning discussions three or four years ago, it was like, ‘Yeah, this is a temporary thing. We’re not going to get too long in gas…'” Smith recalled utility executives saying. “The memory of the higher volatility and gas prices was there. We have seen a very fundamental shift in utility thinking in our region.”

There has been a concurrent increase in the number of coal-fired power plant retirements while multiple nuclear power projects have been wiped from the drawing board, in part due to the recession but also because of the growing profile of gas in power generation, Smith said.

Coal-fired units have been decertified in Georgia, and the Tennessee Valley Authority has increasingly turned to natural gas-fueled generation, Smith said, something it has not historically done.

Among southeastern states, Florida is an exception when it comes to growing its embrace of natural gas. That’s because gas and Florida are already locked in a bear hug, Smith said. Some utilities there are approaching 60% reliance on gas for generation. They’re reaping the benefits of low natural gas prices now, but they’re wary of growing their commitment to gas at the same time, Smith said.

But in Florida and elsewhere in the Southeast, Smith carries the torch for gas.

“We see gas as a very important fuel in making the transition away from coal,” he said. “We believe that coal is more environmentally destructive, and we think costly from a human health standpoint, than natural gas. And we believe [natural gas] is doing a very effective job currently of eroding coal’s market share and giving utilities options for how they are dealing with increased regulations…and often are dealing with aging fleets of coal plants.

“The other thing is we are not big fans of nuclear power, and we have found that natural gas has probably done more than anything else to erode the much-ballyhooed nuclear renaissance.”

Smith clearly doesn’t mind if coal and nuclear suffer, but natural gas does not deserve a free pass either.

“…I believe that the [natural gas] industry should support professional and tighter regulations on fracking, and we believe that there needs to be a very aggressive regime to control methane emissions because the value of natural gas as a carbon-reduction tool is critically lost if the methane leak rates are very high. And those numbers are still obviously being hotly debated in the industry, but we believe that they’re probably higher than what the industry is reporting, and that when you go from the wellhead all the way to the end-user, there are lots of different places where methane leakage is potentially happening.”

Efforts to understand fugitive methane emissions by the natural gas industry from the wellhead to the burner tip generate their own controversy. Recent research organized in party by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and supported by the energy industry has found that efforts to control methane emissions at the wellhead have been working (see Shale Daily, Sept. 17). However, the study’s methodology quickly drew criticism from among some of those interested in protecting the environment and public health (see Shale Daily, Sept. 18).

Smith conceded that some of the criticism leveled at the latest EDF research might be deserved, but he said what EDF is doing is an “important piece of the puzzle” as the overall understanding of methane emissions is weak.

“…[I]f you do the math on what methane leakage does to natural gas as a carbon-fighting or greenhouse gas-fighting component, a lot of those benefits disappear with methane leakage rates that are 3, 4, 5, 6% type of thing,” he said. Smith would like to see methane emissions ultimately limited to 1% from wellhead to burner tip.

“We think [methane emissions restrictions] should be that aggressive,” he said. “I think that the industry has financial reasons why they should be doing that, and if they want this technology to continue to be a valued resource in combating climate change, they’ve got to deal with the methane issue. We’re not saying that needs to be done overnight, but that’s the kind of goal-setting that I think we need to have in national policy if we want gas to play longer term as a climate strategy.”