Can Natural Gas Be a Bridge to Clean Energy?

Natural gas well near Shreveport, Louisiana

Photograph courtesy Daniel Foster/Flickr




s the shale gas boom progresses in North America, and as other nations seek to develop their own gas reserves, communities around the world are engaged in fierce debates over whether to allow fracking and expand global trade of natural gas. The promise of jobs and economic benefits come up against concerns about the environmental and health effects of natural gas development, along with skirmishes over land rights. (See related post about recent live event in Vancouver: "In British Columbia, Mulling the Role of Natural Gas in a Sustainable Energy Future," and get perspectives from the participants on Vimeo.)

But at the heart of these debates lies a broader question about where we should be focusing our efforts to meet energy demand. Can natural gas can be considered a lower-carbon "bridge" fuel, as U.S. President Barack Obama and many others have billed it, or is it simply a continuation of our dependence on fossil fuels? Oil and gas magnate T. Boone Pickens argues on his website, "Natural gas is not a permanent solution to ending our addiction to imported oil. It is a bridge fuel to slash our oil dependence while buying us time to develop new technologies that will ultimately replace fossil transportation fuels."

Natural gas is touted for its potential to reduce emissions by edging out, for example, coal as an electricity source and diesel as truck fuel. But the appeal of a cleaner, abundant fossil fuel source cuts both ways. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that, in the United States, gas threatens to edge out renewables as well. "Shale gas is a great advantage to the U.S. in the short term, for the next few decades," said MIT economist Henry Jacoby, lead author of the study. "But it is so attractive that it threatens other energy sources we ultimately will need." (See related story: "Shale Gas: A Boon That Could Stunt Alternatives, Study Says.")

In some areas, natural gas is most certainly making way for renewables. New gas-fired "flex" power plants in California, for example, are built to ramp up and down quickly to accommodate shifting supply from wind and solar. Facilities like these bolster the idea that the notion of a "bridge" is misguided; some in the energy and technology industries talk about natural gas as a "destination" fuel that we will need for many years to come. (See related story: "New 'Flexible' Power Plants Sway to Keep Up with Renewables.")

What do you think? Is natural gas a bridge, a barrier, or a destination fuel? Vote and comment below.

ignatz epstein
ignatz epstein

I can't believe that I am reading a "story" on sponsored by Shell Oil Company -- shame on National Geographic for this shoddy pseudo-journalism!

Osmand Charpentier
Osmand Charpentier

OCEANOGENIC POWER from 3GW (Panama and its neighbors); going through 300GW (Panama, the Caribbean, Mexico and Colombia); 7TW (the Americas); and 14TW (whole planet) of electricity; to less than 1 cent of a dollar, the kwh; with superconducting lines that also allow controlling the magnetic field of the planet, even prevent its polarity change.

The few who control OPEC (in their dark future OGNEC), now say it can not be that just few control the clean energy,  unique energy will save us from their blunders.

daed lanth
daed lanth

I do not want cheap energy at the cost of destroying deep water aquifers. It is VERY irresponsible.

Bill Conder
Bill Conder

We're on the bridge. The bridge is burning. We need to get across.

Brian Waddington
Brian Waddington

Natural gas = Fracking.

Fracking is really bad

Therefore natural gas is really bad.

Justin Case
Justin Case

Can natural gas be a bridge? Sure. It is possible. It can be used to augment renewables as they come to be used increasingly. A combination of coal/nuclear  and solar/wind  is harder to manage unless you have some gas turbine capacity in there to smooth out the inevitable emergencies and shortfalls and maintenance schedules. And gas can be used to get to a hydrogen economy. If gas is too expensive, Japan will be pushed to use more coal, which won't do the environment any good. 

But if gas is too cheap, it will undercut efforts at expanding the use of renewables. In a place like the US, with no carbon taxes, only environmental legislation and subsidies have enabled the expansion of solar and wind. Without fuel prices as high as Japan's, it is only a matter of time before people will turn back to gas... a fossil fuel... and rely on it. 

What is happening now is probably best. The US should export gas, fix its trade deficits and energy dependency in the process. Gas prices will fall worldwide, or at least remain stable, and coal throughout the world will stay in the ground. 

As far as the role of "bridge" is concerned, nuclear power was supposed to deliver the knockout blow to coal, but that is not going to happen. Gas helps the situation as it stands, but we need to be careful, and we need to move on.

Kevin S.
Kevin S.

Natural Gas is not a Clean Fuel! Propaganda right there

cherri landry
cherri landry

Natural gas is still a fossil fuel and fracking still puts methane gas in the air. we need solar power with no side-effects

Vicky Ugalde
Vicky Ugalde

Hello, I have followed up the development of renewable energy for the past five years.  The renewable energy industry is not mature enough to take over the increasing energy demands for a few decades.

I believe that renewable energy research should continue at major universities regardless of the fossil availability. Thus, governments should implement public policies that allow countries to create local medium size renewable energy companies. Eventually, the percentage of renewable energy may be significant enough to have a favorable impact on the environment and in people´s consumption habits. 

Depending on what part of the world one live in, the change may take a couple of decades or even more , specially when the governments rely heavily in the oil industry for their economy . For instance , in my country the oil industry is state owned which may difficult a change in the energy paradigm.    


I even hate how they are going to use our arguments to practice the lies they are trying to get away with.

As corporations they can always go bankrupt, bribe, use creepy  legal ways to get out of the responsibility and leave us holding the disaster bill.  Their reputation speaks for themselves.


Why are shell , Harper and national geographic co operating?

Co opt erating?

Follow the money.


The argument for fracking, piping, shipping and using "natural gas" because sooo many people need it and MAY end up using a worse product is more spinning by the greedy barons.

The also invest and are on the boards of the "worse" product!  They will not stop shipping any crap to anywhere as long as they make a profit.  Natural gas shipping is a disaster waiting to happen.

When you add up all the factors, it is NOT better.  It's just spun that way.

Fracking is poisoning where our water flows.

 Piping is a toxic leak waiting to happen, never mind it uses too much land that is valuable for FOOD production. (and can be a target).

Shipping is dangerous, (the coastal waters are full of small islands UNLIKE the picture the gas company shows in their ad).

 Refining is toxic, and next the barons will be campaigning/spinning to change our level of acceptable pollution.

Area that need protection are being taken over.

It's a crime against humanity and was and is responsible for poisoning.

 The chemicals needed to frack and refine come with their own dirty past and present, and the leftover crap is being shipped or buried and IT"S toxic too!

No one really NEEDS it, they can and do know how to power things cleanly and get by with less flashing lights and energy guzzlers... GET ON IT!

China can also shut off some lights and so can NYC, France and Ottawa and and and and

CEO's don't need to fly to conferences, they can use the internet.

We don't need to power machines that wipe out everything in it's path, we can get people back to work.

We don't need liars who have no regard for our health and our future controlling our governments and our environment.

Keep it in the ground, there are alternatives and this so called "bridge" to renewable is just another spin to put off smart thinking by those that don't think responsibly at all.

They could have "bridged" it with hemp, solar, wave, water...being less dependent (and stupid in consumption).

THEY have no intention of making things better for anyone but themselves.

Walter Harris
Walter Harris

I am in my seven eight years Old and,as a young boy of six years old, my Father tolled me that one day we would be watching Movies on our living room walls.I agree with Robert Lovett

Robert Lovett
Robert Lovett

I agree that we need to focus on renewable fuels right now but we have no choice than to take the best and cheapest measures that we can do now in order to change the future.

Osmand Charpentier
Osmand Charpentier

Natural gas and all petroleum products, may be intended to produce recyclable materials.

To truly clean energy, already Panama has the solution: renewable, cheap, and plentiful.


The problem that seems insurmountable, is that for certification to the public; slavery caused by democratic jealousy is worse when it's against people in the third world.

The intellectuals of the first world with over 7 years of successful university studies (Physics and mathematics), which are those that can intercede such certification, already carry 12 years trying to understand how a father of 21 children with his only wife, is the one who made this discovery .

It costs them a lot of work, and gives them very afraid to acknowledge that God exists and loves mankind.

Daniel Ferra
Daniel Ferra

We need sustainable energy policies, Ban Fracking and implement a California Residential and Commercial  Feed in Tariff, letting the Home Owners and Business Owners sell their Renewable Energy generation to the Utilities, in a  Feed in Tariff and receive a fair profit for their generation.

Roof top Solar is the new mantra for Solar Leasing Companies with Net-Metering which allows them to replace One Utility with Another, we need to change this policy with a Residential Feed in Tariff that will level the playing field and allow all of us to participate in the State mandated 33% Renewable Energy by 2020.

Alliance for Solar Choice is a group of Solar Leasing Companies that with Net-Metering enable One Utility to Replace Another SLC, Why should a Hard Working, Tax Paying, Voting, Home Owning Citizen not be able to participate in the State mandated 33% Renewable Energy by 2020 ? We need a Ca. Residential Feed in Tariff and a National One.

The Utilities, The Big Boys (Solar Farms in the Desert) and Third party Leasing Companies all fight over the Renewable Portfolio Standards, allocating a percentage of the electrical generation to Renewable Energy for the State, No one is Fighting for the Hard Working, Tax Paying, Voting, Home Owner. We can change that.

Globally we are emitting 40-44 Billion tons of Green House Gases annually, in the United States we emit over 7,075.6 million tons a year, here in California we emit 446 million tons of Carbon Dioxide a year, 1,222,000 Toxic Tons a Day.

"Tell the California Public Utility Commission: No new dirty gas plants!
Every year, more than 70,000 California kids are rushed to the hospital because they can’t breathe, due to air pollution in California

Unfortunately the Governor and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) are considering huge new gas-fired power plants to replace the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Dirty gas plants will make our Air, Water and Soil, worse and just aren't needed.

We can't sit by and let our Air, Water, and Soil, get dirtier and our kids even sicker, when we've got cheaper, cleaner, safer options like Renewable Energy." Sierra Club.

California, there is enough Residential Solar to power 2.25 San Onofres, couple that with a Residential and Commercial Feed in Tariff and we can solve some of these environmental and electrical generating problems.

The Southwest is in the midst of a record drought, some 14 years in the making, which means the water supply for many Western states - California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada - is drying up. Last month the Bureau of Reclamation announced they're cutting the flow of water into Lake Mead, which has already lost 100 feet of water since the drought began.

Will we keep using 3 to 6 million gallons of Clean Water per Fracked well, to extract natural gas ?

This petition will ask the California Regulators and Law makers to allocate Renewable Portfolio Standards to Ca. Home Owners for a Residential Feed in Tariff, the RPS is the allocation method that is used to set aside a certain percentage of electrical generation for Renewable Energy in the the State.

The State of California has mandated that 33% of its Energy come from Renewable Energy by 2020.

The state currently produces about 71% of the electricity it consumes, while it imports 8% from the Pacific Northwest and 21% from the Southwest.

This is how we generate our electricity in 2011, natural gas was burned to make 45.3% of electrical power generated in-state. Nuclear power from Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County accounted for 9.15%, large hydropower 18.3%, Renewable 16.6% and coal 1.6%.

There is 9% missing from San Onofre and with the current South Western drought, how long before the 18.3% hydro will be effected ?

Another generator of power that jumps out is natural gas, 45.3%, that is a lot of Fracked Wells poisoning our ground water, 3 to 6 million gallons of water are used per well.

If Fracking is safe why did Vice Pres Cheney lobby and win Executive, Congressional, and Judicial exemptions from:

Clean Water Act.

Safe Drinking Water.

Act Clean Air Act.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Emergency Planning Community Right to Know Act.

National Environmental Policy Act.

"Americans should not have to accept unsafe drinking water just because natural gas is cheaper than Coal. the Industry has used its political power to escape accountability, leaving the American people unprotected, and no Industry can claim to be part of the solution if it supports exemptions from the basic Laws designed to ensure that we have Clean Water and Clean Air" Natural Resources Defense Council.

We have to change how we generate our electricity, with are current drought conditions and using our pure clean water for Fracking, there has to be a better way to generate electricity, and there is, a proven stimulating policy.

The Feed in Tariff is a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in Renewable Energy, the California FiT allows eligible customers generators to enter into 10- 15- 20- year contracts with their utility company to sell the electricity produced by renewable energy, and guarantees that anyone who generates electricity from R E source, whether Homeowner, small business, or large utility, is able to sell that electricity. It is mandated by the State to produce 33% R E by 2020.
FIT policies can be implemented to support all renewable technologies including:


Photovoltaics (PV)

Solar thermal




Fuel cells

Tidal and wave power.

There is currently 3 utilities using a Commercial Feed in Tariff in California Counties, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and Sacramento, are paying their businesses 17 cents per kilowatt hour for the Renewable Energy they generate. We can get our Law makers and Regulators to implement a Residential Feed in Tariff, to help us weather Global Warming, insulate our communities from grid failures, generate a fair revenue stream for the Homeowners and protect our Water.

The 17 cents per kilowatt hour allows the Commercial Business owner and the Utility to make a profit.

Commercial Ca. rates are 17 - 24 cents per kilowatt hour.

Implementing a Residential Feed in Tariff at 13 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 2,300 MW, and then allow no more than 3-5 cents reduction in kilowatt per hour, for the first tier Residential rate in you area and for the remaining capacity of Residential Solar, there is a built in Fee for the Utility for using the Grid. A game changer for the Hard Working, Voting, Tax Paying, Home Owner and a Fair Profit for The Utility, a win for our Children, Utilities, and Our Planet.

We also need to change a current law, California law does not allow Homeowners to oversize their Renewable Energy systems.

Campaign to allow Californian residents to sell electricity obtained by renewable energy for a fair pro-business market price. Will you read, sign, and share this petition?

Do not exchange One Utility for Another (Solar Leasing Companies) "Solar is absolutely great as long as you stay away from leases and PPAs. Prices for solar have dropped so dramatically in the past year, that leasing a solar system makes absolutely no sense in today's market.

Dinar Sinta Augustina  Djajadiwinata
Dinar Sinta Augustina Djajadiwinata

Fossils fuels are limited and for that fuel to re-available will take a long time. If we do not focus on the renewable energy right now, we will face energy crisis.

Steve Robinson
Steve Robinson

Every energy creation or capture source has its costs and weaknesses. Personally, I favour nuclear power generation - but only if nuclear waste can be handled safely.

But the sad truth is that our human population growth needs to be halted in a fair manner for everyone in the world. Education is key.

Franz Settels
Franz Settels

I would like to see more concentration on renewables, but if natural gas is needed as a bridge, then we should not be exporting to other countries for a profit for a few now. Gas producers should be satisfied with domestic market,  and emission controls should be in place, istead of exporting our carbon footprint elsewhere. Same for oil, coal, etc. There is no valid reason for getting it all out of the ground as fast as possible, only to satisfy shareholders.

susan orr
susan orr

why isn't energy conservation a choice in all your materials?

Russ Katt
Russ Katt

Not really shale gas.  Hydraulic fracturing (No detonation)  is just attempt to connect up porosity in a low permeability reservoir.  Insanely expensive and not really an economic venture.  If there are associated liquids (Condensate) then this becomes economic.  This is not a stop gap nor a destination.

Using less and diversifying  the inputs my save us, lifestyle and  consumption need to change, not more of the same.

José de Melo
José de Melo

solar panels, wind turbines,batteries,hydroelectric power plants are already reality, but... > ..... hydrogen-based engines,and a lot of projected devices (mainly electrical ones)  are almost mature.

(Google translator worked hard now.....)  

Roshan Payapulli
Roshan Payapulli

The poll above did not have the option I was looking for. In some ways I think gas is a bridge fuel, in some ways a long-term fuel. Gas from anaerobic respiration of sewage and biomass waste should be a long term fuel - it provides a renewable methane supply, it manages waste well, it produces cheap and natural fertiliser for farmers and it harnesses energy from waste where he methane produced would have just gone in to the atmosphere anyway. Gas from fracking and other natural gas supplies can be a bridge supply along with, I think, coal or oil using carbon capture and utilisation technology, until enough energy is being supplied by renweable energy and nuclear fusion (in my opinion the ultimate endgame). A diversity of energy sources is required I think, and homes should definitely start implementing microgeneration using renewable energy sources. All waste can be utilised to produce energy and I think this should also be a long term goal.

wayne moss
wayne moss

I agree with Joris Van Dorp.  Unlike fossil fuels, all the risks and the wastes and the costs of nuclear energy are contained and accounted for - I know what I'm getting.....

50 or 60 diesel trucks roll past my café every day, carrying 8 million gallons of water.  None of the drivers ever stop to eat.  They're all sub-contractors from out of state.  Along with the water, thousands of gallons of chemicals  are injected underground and then detonated.  We haven't had earthquakes yet.

Outside my window a methane flame burns 24 hours a day.  A few miles away, a new well recently exploded, killing a sub-contractor.  Chevron offered the town pizza and a two liter.  At least they bought it locally.

Some of my customers got big royalty checks for their leases.  Thought they were gonna get rich.  Now the extraction companies are charging them huge "pumping fees" to move their gas.  My friends feel they've been cheated by Chesapeake.  Chesapeake has "ties" to the gas pumping company.

Methane is 20 or 30 times more potent a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide.  How much methane escapes before it reaches destination ?  Nobody knows.  They call it "fugitive release".  

Only half the fracking fluid is recovered.  What's in those 40 thousand different chemicals that are lost underground ?  Only the frackers know, because it's a "proprietary secret".  

I got no problem with Shell getting rich selling off a natural resource, but shale gas is only "clean and green" if you ignore the risks and the waste and the cost.  But I can't ignore them - they are in my front yard.

We don't need a "bridge" built out of prehistoric fossils - we need to open our eyes to the 21st century and embrace science and engineering. . . . We need nuclear NOW.

Joris van Dorp
Joris van Dorp

I agree with Mr. Adams, whose views and information on nuclear power is well documented, buttressed by expert criticism and can be examined freely at his long-lived website Atomic Insights (I have no affiliation)

There is no way to answer the poll question for me also.

In my opinion, in principle, natural gas should be reserved for chemical industries, not power generation, because it is a non-renewable resource that should be applied to higher value industrial activities. If nothing else, they should be used to power transport which is already suffering from high oil prices.

Conversely, nuclear fuels - while being non-renewable - are also inexhaustible and extremely cheap, which means that we should use them preferentially for power generation instead of quickly depleting fossil fuels which are more valuable to non-power generation industries. By using nuclear fuels, fossil fuels can be displaced by direct, unsubsidized competition. This means that fossil fuel usage can be reduced also in developing countries which generally don't have the money to spend on huge subsidies.

Apart from the low cost, nuclear power is a leader in safety and cleanliness, even while anti-nuclear advocacy groups work hard to hide and tarnish nuclear's exemplary record by the use of demonstrable half-truths or complete falsehoods.

Besides, renewable energies - much as I love them - are mostly already over-subsidized as it is. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent mostly on the manufacturing of a very few renewable technologies (wind and solar), which would arguably have benefited more from additional research and development rather than such large scale implementation. Also, the huge funds going to wind and solar could have been used to support efficiency and quality improvement in aging residential building stock and other infrastructure improvements which equally play a role in sustainable development.

Rod Adams
Rod Adams

I'm sorry I could not complete your poll question because there is no appropriate choice available. I can accept natural gas as a bridge to a clean energy future, but renewables alone will never be able to serve modern society.

While I personally believe that nuclear energy can fit a reasonable definition of "renewable," I realize that the renewable energy industry that claims that word as its brand will resist any attempt to allow nuclear energy to qualify. That seems to be true even for nuclear energy systems that are designed to run on "nuclear waste" since it still contains about 95% of its initial potential energy.

Without a choice that includes nuclear energy, there is simply no way for me to honestly participate.

Rod Adams

Publisher, Atomic Insights

Host and producer, the Atomic Show Podcast.

douglas castro
douglas castro

i fear that there will be an attitude from the shale gas in north america, an attitude that is lazy and will drag on the advances and use of renewable energy until the final drop is burned. then we'll be left with severely finite fossil fuels and inefficient renewable sources. i can only hope we'll pull through. it should be treated as a race: advancement of renewable energy vs fossil fuels.

Floyd Kauffman
Floyd Kauffman

Our economy simply cannot take the hit from a rapid move to higher priced renewable energy. Yes, we need renewable energy but it needs to come in gradually so we can afford it and to give the economies of scale time to work. 

Hakim Boriawala
Hakim Boriawala

This is all politics. With all the technology in our hands today, it is not difficult to build plants which cultivate renewable energy. Governments don't want to get them just because once installed and running, it requires no fuel. And can generate power any where in the world as sun, wind, tide energy is available in any part of the world (at least one of them). Governments are concerned about the multi-trillion oil industry, that's it. They don't give a s*** about the environment. They want power and money which only oil trading can give them for now.

Abdelhamid Cherragui
Abdelhamid Cherragui

We don't need to squeeze the last drops of fossil energy resources that we have.

Diversity is the answer, we can't switch from the dominance of petrol into the dominance of Natural Gas. I wish if the money and time spent on developing Non Conventional Gas extracting technologies was spent on renewable energies and rendering engines and electric objects more efficient.

We should focus on renewable energies, because it is the only thing which is sustainable and can be cheaper than any kind of fossil energy with technology advancement.

The use of shale gas and its extraction is very expensive, which gives us an expensive source of energy which will last for a very short time, and then what to do with its infrastructure?

Once we base our economy and life style on a single kind of energy we limit ourselves and our development. Investing so much money and time only on shale gas is repeating the same mistakes our grandfathers and fathers did with petrol.

Diversity is the answer, which can only come from renewable energy resources.

Give the Earth a break.

Ty Camby
Ty Camby

there are no comments... hmmmmm this is very interesting though.

Abdelhamid Cherragui
Abdelhamid Cherragui

@Floyd Kauffman Shale gas is expensive as well, at least the infrastructure of renewable energies is also renewable, not like the infrastructure of any kind of fossil energy which becomes totally useless once the energy in use is gone. We should take in consideration the cost and the sustainability of the infrastructure, not just the crude price of Gas.

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