The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new report just shot down a key argument against President Obama’s climate plans

The coal-fired Plant Scherer operates in Juliette, Ga.  (AP Photo/John Amis)

For a while now, those decrying the Obama administration’s plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants — under EPA’s  Clean Power Plan — have levied a pretty serious practical criticism. Natural gas, they suggest, isn’t necessarily ready to step up and fill the gap in our electricity-generating infrastructure, which is currently occupied by coal.

In a report released late last year, for instance, the Republican-majority staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee questioned the idea that under the new regulations, states will be able to power their electricity needs with a greater reliance on natural gas (as EPA envisions). Among other arguments, the document wondered whether there would be enough reliable natural gas pipelines and infrastructure, just as Republican Rep. Pete Olson of Texas did at an earlier hearing, remarking, “EPA’s second pillar of the carbon rules calls for a massive increase in power from natural gas, but they don’t seem to realize that coordinating natural gas and electric power is a very delicate balance.”

One key critic cited by Republicans has been Federal Energy Regulatory Commission commissioner Philip Moeller, who testified before Congress last year on his concern about “whether there will be sufficient pipeline capacity to support this increase in natural gas generation.”

It’s a very legitimate question to ask. But according to a new report from the Department of Energy examining the nation’s natural gas infrastructure — conducted by Deloitte MarketPoint — it may not be that much of a problem.  The report found that in two scenarios in which a “simple, illustrative national carbon policy applied to the electric power sector” was considered, the nation’s natural gas infrastructure would only require “modest incremental additions” of pipeline capacity.

“I think this report is extremely timely and provides an important new insight,” says Susan Tierney, a former energy department official who served as a peer reviewer on the report. “The U.S. system requirements for natural gas seem quite manageable going forward.”

Natural gas, when burned, contributes considerably less carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than coal does. And thanks to the fracking revolution, the United States has become the world leader in producing natural gas. So it makes great sense that as we shift away from coal, natural gas would take its place.

The problem, though, is that while coal can sit in a pile near a plant ready to burn, natural gas has to be transported to go through pipelines. So it’s  legitimate to wonder whether current pipelines — 217,000 miles worth of them — have the capacity to service a growing need for natural gas to generate electricity in the future.

The new report notes that pipeline infrastructure has been expanding greatly to keep up with the shale gas revolution. But its central feature is  a model that examines how natural gas would flow into the electric power arena under different demand scenarios, including two scenarios in which coal-fired power plants retire because of a national carbon policy, like EPA’s.

The result was that even in a case where there is presumed to be a high demand for natural gas (because there are a lot of coal plant retirements), we still wouldn’t have to build natural gas pipeline capacity at a faster rate during the 15-year period from 2015 to 2030 than we did from 1998 through 2013. The reason, says the report, is the “wide geographic distribution of both natural gas production and demand and the ability to increase utilization of some existing pipelines.”

To be specific: From 1998 and 2013, the nation added nearly 127 billion cubic feet per day’s worth of pipeline capacity. From 2015 to 2030, says the report, the additional capacity would only be about 38 billion to 42 billion cubic feet per day.

“This analysis shows that the amount of new natural gas infrastructure that would be needed to accommodate the increased demand for gas coming from carbon policy would be modest relative to the amount of gas infrastructure that we’ve built in recent years,” says Jason Bordoff, an energy policy expert at Columbia University who formerly served on the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the National Security Council.

In the coming year, there will be a battery of arguments against the EPA’s plans to regulate carbon emissions from coal plants. But this research suggests that the idea that natural gas infrastructure can’t step up to the plate shouldn’t be one of them.

At the same time, let’s not forget that many environmental groups have concerns about natural gas, and especially  fracking. They certainly want the president’s climate plans to succeed — but the means of success may be bittersweet.