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Study: Natural Gas Will Not Solve America's Pollution Problem

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If you thought of natural gas as a useful "bridge fuel" to help America transition from dirty to clean energy, a new study published in Environmental Research Letters has some disappointing news: Natural gas won't cure our greenhouse-gas affliction.

Rather, the study finds, abundant and cheap gas would cause people to consume more electricity, and since gas competes directly with renewables, it will delay the transition to clean power. The result: natural gas does not noticeably lower emissions. 

A chart from the Energy Information Administration forecasting electricity growth through 2040 shows natural gas growing to 35 percent of electricity generation in the U.S. by 2040. But coal isn't expected to shrink by much:

EIA forecast

The researchers from University of California, Irvine, didn't even factor in the downsides of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that makes up nearly 100 percent of natural gas. Methane can escape into the atmosphere at any point throughout the natural gas extraction process, but this study assumes there is a very low level of methane leaking. Unfortunately, we don't have a single number for just how much is leaking into the atmosphere.