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Sep 25, 2014 04:27 AM EDT

Natural Gas Does Little to Reduce Greenhouse Emissions, Study

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Large amounts of natural gas does little to curb U.S. greenhouse emissions, according to a study conducted by the University of California Irvine, Stanford University, and the nonprofit organization Near Zero.

The researchers said that greater consumption of the non-renewable inexpensive gas can delay switch and expansion to cleaner renewable energy like wind and solar.

"In our results, abundant natural gas does not significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions. This is true even if no methane leaks during production and shipping," said lead author Christine Shearer, a postdoctoral scholar in Earth system science at UC Irvine, in a press release.

Coal-fired plants, the country's largest source of power, generate carbon dioxide in huge quantities. CO2 is the main greenhouse gas contaminating the Earth's atmosphere. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently ordered organisations to switch from coal to natural gases in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions by 2030.

Previous studies highlighted the risk of natural gas when its main component methane escapes into the atmosphere from wells and pipelines. But, the new study found that even when methane does not leak, the overall climate benefits of gas are likely to constitute a smaller percentage because its constant use hinders the construction of low-carbon energy facilities like solar arrays.

After examining several climate policies, the researchers found that the non-renewable gas can at the max cut emissions by 9 percent by 2055.

"Natural gas has been presented as a bridge to a low-carbon future, but what we see is that it's actually a major detour. We find that the only effective paths to reducing greenhouse gases are a regulatory cap or a carbon tax," Shearer said.

The researchers said that greater use of the gas is a poor approach for clearing the atmosphere.

"Cutting greenhouse gas emissions by burning natural gas is like dieting by eating reduced-fat cookies," said Steven Davis, assistant professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine and the study's principal investigator. "It may be better than eating full-fat cookies, but if you really want to lose weight, you probably need to avoid cookies altogether."

The finding is published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

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