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Climate Aspiration Meets Natural Gas Reality

It's becoming commonplace to read that a state or city has adopted aggressive goals to significantly reduce, if not entirely eliminate, its carbon footprint by some specified date over the next few decades. Dictates usually include a phase-in timeline, for example reduction of 30% by year X, 60% by year Y, and 100% by year Z.

Laudable though they may be from a climate perspective, such prescriptions almost always lack a roadmap. There is no practical plan to go from today to the stated goal using best available resources and technologies, nor a clear picture of the investments needed to get there.

In other words, such plans are "aspirational" (as the Green New Deal has been characterized), untethered to any practically implementable plan to achieve their goals. They invariably rely on exponential growth of wind and solar far beyond what is forecast, coupled with as yet unachieved break-throughs in battery storage, to replace the power generated by the current fleet of coal, gas and nuclear plants.

But knowledgeable leaders and realists are saying major reductions can't happen without relying on current technology and especially on natural gas. Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last week presented a report prepared by his own think tank that directly challenges the assumption that California can achieve its carbon-reduction goals through increased wind and solar along with battery storage. He declared that battery storage options "do not currently exist", and that gas-fired generation must continue to play a key role. Bill Gates said essentially the same thing at a recent Stanford University symposium.

Now comes New York City, whose legislature last week passed a resolution requiring the city's largest residential and commercial buildings reduce their carbon emissions 40% by 2040 and 80% by 2050. Again, no pathway was prescribed other than reliance on wind and solar. In reality, its goals will be impossible to achieve without converting to efficient on-premises natural gas installations, and relying on grid power generated in part by natural gas plants.

How ironic, then, that one of New York City's largest gas distribution companies, Con Edison, also last week announced that it would have to extend its moratorium on new gas connections to its New York City service area, broadening its earlier-announced southern Westchester County moratorium, if the Northeast Supply Enhancement natural gas pipeline is not permitted by New York State and built. A Con Ed executive warned that the utility "would have to move quickly to declare a moratorium on new gas connections in our New York City service area". This would apply to residential, commercial and industrial customers.

These two nearly simultaneous events offer compelling examples of what happens when aspirations collide with reality and policymakers fail to reconcile their goals with what is achievable without imposing draconian costs or hardship on their constituents. Natural gas is an essential path to a lower carbon future, both here in the U.S. and globally. This eminently achievable aspiration will only be realized by producing more of our abundant natural gas and building the pipelines to deliver it.

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