Thriving society requires energy. The source of that energy can come from an array of natural resources and technological processes to convert light, heat, and motion into power. Energy development must, of course, be reconciled with environmental protection to minimize negative externalities. As innovators and public officials seek a sustainable model to achieve this balance, they will realize it is already in front of them.
Over the last century, the energy mix providing power the American homes, businesses, and industries has undergone significant shifts. One monumental shift occurred with the early 2000s revitalization of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to access natural gas in greater volumes than ever before. While coal made up the lion’s share of American electrical power for decades, it has steadily declined as new supplies of low-cost natural gas arose and as the need and desire to improve environmental stewardship took hold in the 21st Century.
Today, America makes incredible use of natural gas. By all reasonable metrics that is a positive development. In conjunction with deployment of new technology, reliance on natural gas nearly halved U.S. energy sector emissions from 2005 to 2020 and has facilitated the slow but steady phase out of coal. Natural gas is responsible it for over 40 percent of U.S. utility-scale electricity and provides heat to over 50 percent of homes. On top of this, it is relied upon for cooking, water heating, industrial processes, and as raw material inputs for manufacturing and consumer goods.
Natural gas simply cannot be left in the ground or regulated out of the market. It is too essential to modern life, serves vulnerable populations, provides low-cost energy to homes, hospitals, businesses, and communities, and it enables safe water, cooked food, and life-preserving applications. As surely as we need robust energy to maintain and advance modern life, we need natural gas as one component among many.
Perhaps most critically, natural gas is not simply a fossil fuel. This is true of course in one sense, but there are two crucial distinctions. First, while natural gas is widely used as a fuel, it is an incredibly versatile resource beyond energy. Manufacturers rely on methane as a bedrock of the supply chain, serving as a feedstock for products as diverse as clothing and fabrics, chemicals and cleaners, pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, and even fertilizers enabling food production. Cutting off natural gas because it is a fossil fuel ignores its criticality as a fossil resource and risks disrupting supply chains, increasing costs across the entire economy, and threatening vulnerable populations with energy poverty, food insecurity, and more.
The second reason fossil fuel is not entirely accurate is that naturally occurring methane can be captured, collected, and harnessed from sources such as landfills and agriculture. With minimal processing, this methane is a renewable source of natural gas, ready to be piped alongside fracked natural gas within existing infrastructure. In fact, by capturing this methane that would otherwise enter the atmosphere, renewable natural gas is actually carbon neutral – real natural gas that is a far cry from the common conception of fossil fuels.
It boils down to natural gas being essential for providing abundant, low-cost electricity, domestic and industrial heat, and upholding supply chains across dozens of sectors. It is not a bridge fuel. Natural gas is a forever resource that is needed today and well into the future to support the development and deployment of additional energy, power, manufacturing, and feedstock innovations.
Given that need, natural gas must also be safely and responsibly transported. The available means to transport any energy resources are trucks, rail, pipelines, barges, and ships. Among these, pipelines are the preferred method of transport for hazardous materials. With a safety record exceeding 99.999 percent effectiveness, pipelines not only carry higher volumes without leaks or spills, but facilitate cost effective transportation that loses less product, causes less environmental damage, and more efficiently delivers product at high speeds. Rather than simply competitors, trucks, rail, and other modes must continue to serve as compliments to pipelines as the standard energy transportation method. Moreover, as time goes on, pipelines will become even more important for natural gas, as well as carbon dioxide and other climate solutions.
Without this essential infrastructure network already in place, transitions to hydrogen and other gases will not be viable. This means building new pipelines remains critical for the economy, our energy security, and even our climate and environmental goals of the future.
While pipelines are unquestionably known for safety and effectiveness, they still have a footprint. Whether it is the construction, operation, or leaks from failures or excavation damage, emissions cannot be entirely prevented. This is why high-quality voluntary carbon offset are critical and should be considered by energy producers, transporters, utilities, and even end users. While carbon offset purchases should not be mandated by any government authority, those private actors striving to be leaders in environmental conservation, community involvement, and sustainable investment should prioritize their use. It will enable them to allocate funds efficiently to conservation and environmental efforts of their choice, while also helping jumpstart innovative entrepreneurs deploying carbon capture and storage technologies in the field.
Through this three-step sustainable model, America is guaranteed a prosperous society thriving on abundant energy, while safely and efficiently transporting it, and neutralizing the environmental impact. What’s more, by factoring in renewable natural gas, this source can live on for the long term and become carbon neutral; and if paired with offsets, becomes a carbon-negative energy source. This sustainable energy, transportation, and environmental model will do more than power America, it will lead to positive corporate change, and even build up a new climate solutions industry.
Read our latest white paper published in the Pipeline & Gas Journal to learn more.
Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.