One of the arguments against fracking, and the natural gas industry in general, is that burning gas releases carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming.i What if burning natural gas resulted in no CO2 emissions? In the next three to five years that may be true.
MIT Technology Review has identified “zero carbon natural gas” as one of ten breakthrough technologies for 2018. NET Power, LLC is currently testing the concept with a 50-megawatt demonstration power plant in LaPorte, Texas. “The plant puts the carbon dioxide released from burning natural gas under high pressure and heat, using the resulting supercritical CO2 as the ‘working fluid’ that drives a specially built turbine. Much of the carbon dioxide can be continuously recycled; the rest can be captured cheaply.”ii NET Power plans to sell or use the remaining CO2 for enhanced oil recovery and manufacturing cement and plastics. 8 Rivers Capital invented and is advancing the Allam Cycle technology behind the project.
Although zero carbon natural gas is still being tested, if it proves to be viable, it would undercut the argument that fracking should be banned because it leads to greater CO2 emissions. Fracking for oil would still result in some CO2 emissions when oil and gasoline are burned, and it will still be necessary to tightly control fugitive methane emissions from producing natural gas, but the elimination of CO2 emissions from natural gas would still be worthwhile. The electric power sector accounts for approximately 35 percent of all U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions. That means that replacing current natural gas plants and coal plants with zero carbon natural gas power plants could reduce American CO2 emissions by over one-third.iii
Although “[n]atural gas overtook coal as the top fuel for making electricity in the U.S. two years ago,” there does not currently appear to be much interest in building more natural gas power plants.iv Over 30 percent of American and 22 percent of worldwide electricity currently comes from burning natural gas,v but many state regulators and environmental groups are resisting building more, favoring instead renewable sources that do not contribute any CO2 emissions.vi Environmental groups are also trying to block the construction of natural gas pipelines that are needed to bring the gas to power plants. The advent of zero carbon natural gas would justify building more natural gas power plants and pipelines and continuing to frack rock formations to supply them.
i Another argument is that equipment leaks and venting release methane, the primary component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Industry best management practices and state laws such as those in Colorado, Wyoming, and Texas have significantly reduced methane emissions from oil and gas operations. BLM and EPA methane laws enacted during the Obama administration are being litigated and revised.
ii “Zero Carbon Natural Gas,” MIT Technology Review, Vol. 121, No. 2 (March/April 2018), p. 44.
iii “Coal accounted for 68% and natural gas for 30% of the CO2 emissions from the electric power sector.” U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Where Greenhouse Gases Come From,” available at https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=environment_where_ghg_come_from.
iv Erin Ailworth, “Natural Gas’s Reign As Top Fuel Tested,” The Wall Street Journal (March 19, 2018), p. A1.
v “Zero Carbon Natural Gas,” p. 44.
vi Natural Gas’s Reign As Top Fuel Tested,” p. A1.