In the 21st century, we need energy just as we need food, water and shelter to survive.

Our energy must be abundant, affordable and accessible so it benefits everyone, and it must be clean so we can live our lives without making the planet unlivable.

Not only is meeting these needs important, but so is the way in which we meet them. We cannot enact the transition to cleaner fuels by flipping a switch, turning a key or pressing a button. If that were possible, we would have done so already.

History shows that energy transitions have never beenand cannot be—instantaneous. New fuels never immediately fully replace old fuels. We’ve seen in the "America’s Natural Gas" report, how and why our energy mix has changed:

  • Oil established dominance in the early 20th century, taking the top spot from coal, as automobiles became dominant in transportation.

  • The U.S. economy grew so quickly that domestic production couldn’t keep up and oil needed to be imported.

  • The sudden cutoff of oil imports in the 1970s demonstrated the need for energy security.

  • A concerted effort by government and industry led to the shale revolution and a dramatic increase in oil and gas production.

  • During the shale revolution, the coupling of oil and gas prices ended, with the growth of natural gas production resulting in lower prices.

  • Electric utilities in many cases switched from coal to cheaper natural gas to fuel their power plants.

  • Because natural gas is a clean-burning fuel—emitting about half as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as coal—emissions from power generation fell sharply.

  • By 2050 the volume of natural gas to produce electricity will increase by 19% over 2020, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration projections. Renewable sources are expected to grow 175% and double their share in the mix.

US CO2 emissions intensity in electricity generation
(Source: International Energy Agency)

US electricity generation from selected fuels
(Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

US electricity generation by major energy source, 2000-2020
(Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

The goal of the energy transition is to adopt fuels that do not emit greenhouse gases. To that end, sectors of the economy such as transportation have plans to shift in large part to electricity. That means that a lot more electricity will need to be produced to meet that demand in the years ahead.

So keep this in mind: carbon emissions dropped sharply in U.S. electricity generation because gas was cheaper than coal. That won’t be enough for the energy transition to succeed because the task is too big, the time frame is too short and commodities markets are notoriously too volatile. Government policy goals must dovetail with the goals of the industry, as they did to bring about the shale revolution.

For that to happen, there needs to be sound energy policy and an acknowledgement of certain realities:

  • Rising demand for energy: Wind and solar are intermittent sources that need a reliable source during high-demand periods or when it is dark or not windy. Nuclear power is not projected to grow, and growth in coal production and use will set back climate goals. Natural gas is the answer.

  • Emissions: As the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, its lower level of CO2 can be mitigated more easily and cheaply than coal’s. Again, natural gas is the answer.

  • Energy security: Production of renewable energy is growing quickly, but not quickly enough to meet the energy demands of a growing economy, especially one turning toward electrification. Not recognizing the important role of natural gas in the mix will result in energy shortages, higher prices and economic uncertainty.

This is not a zero-sum game. Choosing natural gas does not equate to denial of climate change or opposition to the energy transition. Nor does it imply that governments or industries should delay actions to lower carbon emissions. As the "America’s Natural Gas" report has shown, this abundant fuel is indispensable in the energy transition precisely because it works in concert with renewable sources of energy.

Sound energy policy will encourage accelerated development and deployment of carbon capture technologies, including direct air capture to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. It will reward companies that take aggressive action against methane emissions and ensure that gas production can take place without harmful consequences to the environment.

These policy goals are achievable when people understand what is at stake. They allow natural gas to realize the potential of what energy needs to be: abundant, affordable, accessible and clean.

Click here to continue reading the "America's Natural Gas" report.