Spring 2012

Is Shale Gas Good for Climate Change?

Daniel P. Schrag

Shale gas is a new energy resource that has shifted the dominant paradigm on U.S. hydrocarbon resources. Some have argued that shale gas will play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by displacing coal used for electricity, serving as a moderate-carbon “bridge fuel.” Others have questioned whether methane emissions from shale gas extraction lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions overall. I argue that the main impact of shale gas on climate change is neither the reduced emissions from fuel substitution nor the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas itself, but rather the competition between abundant, low-cost gas and low-carbon technologies, including renewables and carbon capture and storage. This might be remedied if the gas industry joins forces with environmental groups, providing a counterbalance to the coal lobby, and ultimately eliminating the conventional use of coal in the United States.

DANIEL P. SCHRAG is the Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at Harvard University, where he is also Director of the Center for the Environment. He currently serves on President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He has authored more than one hundred articles on topics in geochemistry, geology, paleoclimatology, oceanography, energy technology, and energy policy.

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