So-called “Bridge Fuels”
Many people and governments who recognize the looming climate crisis are calling for the use of “bridge fuels” that will get us across the gulf from dirty fuels like coal and oil and into the era of wind and solar. One of these is natural gas but we need to recall that there is no such thing as a clean fossil fuel. They are all more or less dirty but it is true that natural gas emits about half the pollutants as coal which makes it attractive to some. But, using it as a so-called “bridge fuel” involves us in emissions that will continue for at least fifty years as the fossil fuel companies and utilities will need to get their investments back on the heavy infrastructure needed to recover and distribute the gas. Furthermore, the current natural gas boom is the result primarily of hydraulic fracturing which creates three problems of its own. First, it has been linked to ground water and well contamination by various pollutants including some that are carcinogenic. Second, the wells and pipelines leak methane, in some documented cases in the Bakken Shale fields in North Dakota, up to 10 percent. Since methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, the result “would be worse than burning coal” according to Robert Pollin in his new book, Greening The Global Economy. Furthermore, even switching 50 percent from coal to natural gas would provide only very modest gains, reducing CO2 emissions by only 8 percent. Finally, the extraction of natural gas requires the drilling of many, many wells but the supplies in each tend to be quite limited so that, as Lester Brown writes in The Great Transition: Shifting From Fossil Fuels To Solar And Wind Energy: “. . . the new wells are depleted quite rapidly. . . ” and therefore “. . . it makes little sense for society to invest in expanding gas infrastructure and then have to abandon it.”
In short, a necessary path to holding global average temperatures to 3.6° means leaving the majority of the fossil fuels in the ground including natural gas.
Many people including some environmentalists are advocating nuclear energy as the solution or at least as a bridge to clean renewables but nuclear has its own insurmountable problems. Currently it supplies only 4.8 percent of global generation and would have to be ramped up on a colossal scale to become relevant. However, nuclear generating plants take a long time to build and are horrifically expensive, much more expensive than clean alternatives that are now on the shelf. Even if we started to build them now, they would not come on line in time to ameliorate the climate crisis. Even more importantly, nuclear plants are not fossil free. They depend on large expenditures of fossil fuels for fuel processing, transport and construction. Nuclear has a large carbon footprint. Further, they leave us with horrific toxins for ten times longer than civilization has yet been around and also with useless, heavily irradiated structures that will need to be dismantled and buried at an astronomical cost per plant. Then there is the risk of the next Fukushima type meltdown. Finally, they complicate the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation and are prime targets for terrorist attacks which would make the World Trade Center attack pale by comparison. Finally, nuclear power just doesn’t make sense. It is an incredibly complex and dangerous technology just to heat water into steam to turn a turbine to turn a magnet inside a copper coil. Heating water by fissioning uranium is just silly. I suspect it was developed for two reasons; one, because we could. It was what the atomic physicists called “technologically sweet.” The second was guilt over unleashing horrific weapons of mass destruction on the world. Nuclear power plants would offset–atoms for peace, as it were. Expanding nuclear is a non-starter. Wind and solar power are off the shelf ready today and in fact are the fastest growing sector of the energy economy. We don’t need any bridges that simply prolong the fossil fuel era or threaten us with toxic waste and radioactive meltdowns.