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Natural Gas as a ‘Bridge Fuel’: Back to the 1980s/90s

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- February 2, 2022

“History rhymes. Natural gas as part of the environmental solution is a return to thirty-plus years ago.”

John Kerry stated the obvious last month to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: natural gas must be a ‘bridge fuel’ for the “energy reset” away from fossil fuels. “Gas is going to be important to the transition,” said Biden’s climate envoy, adding:

But if we move too fast and too far with too much, and build out an infrastructure for 30 and 40 years, with plans to be able to use it for 30 or 40 years without abatement — if it’s abated, terrific. If you can capture 100% and it makes it affordable, that’s wonderful. But we’re not doing that.

Forget the caveats. Wind and solar and batteries are falling short, and oil, natural gas, and coal are making up the shortfall around the world. This is not a bump but a roadblock–the reset needs to be toward the reliables and away from the unreliables with consumers making the call and taxpayers neutral.

Biden has begged OPEC and Russia to open the oil spigots more. The Administration recently praised LNG in Europe’s moment of need. EU ministers, meanwhile, are debating whether to include natural gas (and nuclear) as “green” in the net-zero quest. Natural gas is hardly dead, and eco-authoritarian planners are out on a voter-political ledge.

Back to Ken Lay/Enron

Environmental groups have virtually all rejected natural gas on methane release/CO2 grounds (see below). But this was not the case thirty-plus years ago.

Soon after James Hansen put the global warming issue on the front page, Ken Lay’s Enron energized the gas industry to come together to crusade against coal (and, soon, with the Gulf War, oil) on climate-change grounds. Lay’s early work is described in my Enron Ascending: The Forgotten Years:

Chapter 7 (p. 329)

With less relative CO2 emissions than oil and particularly coal, the natural gas industry got right on board. The American Gas Association sold environmental groups on a “bridge fuel” substitution strategy. “Our effectiveness depends on how the industry reacts,” explained the Sierra Club about its foray into fossil fuel advocacy. The World Resources Institute upped the ante: “We believe that discouraging new uses of natural gas is bad energy policy, economically unsound, and environmentally damaging.”

The National Coal Association labeled such thinking “shortsighted,” while the nuclear group US Council for Energy Awareness complained about being left out of the discussion. This was coal versus gas.

With new environmental regulations kicking in under the Clean Air Act of 1990, as well as political interest in tightening existing standards and expanding the list of pollutants, Lay … exhort[ed] electricity executives to go “beyond Clean Air compliance” with gas-for-coal substitution. This meant some combination of “natural gas co-firing, gas conversion, or new gas-fired capacity [that] would hedge the risk facing ratepayers resulting from potential CO2 emissions limits or taxes in the future.”


Ken Lay fashioned an attractive climate message for both sides of the political divide. To Republicans, he stressed the no-regrets strategy of using natural gas to address climate change: “While we complete the research on global warming, we have a significant opportunity to reduce one of the major causes of global warming without paying any economic penalty.” To Democrats and to allied environmentalists, Lay went further. “Global climate change is … potentially … a horrendous problem,” Lay opined in one interview.

“I don’t know of any evidence to suggest that larger and larger accumulations of greenhouse gases—and particularly CO2 emissions—in the atmosphere has any—and I do mean any—beneficial effects for our globe and mankind,” Lay iterated elsewhere.

Lay’s climate alarmism was opportunistic, self-serving, and intellectually myopic. There were top-drawer arguments against this eco-scare, just as there had been about the population bomb in the 1960s and resource famines in the 1970s. A vast literature existed on the positive ecological and economic benefit of higher concentrations of atmospheric CO2 for plants and woody matter, such as that document by the coal-funded Greening Earth Society. But Ken Lay was not in a mood to think impartially about a new weapon against the energy enemy.

Lay was pliable on many things political and social in his quest for a mighty Enron. In time, he would confess to the opportunism presented by the global-warming meme. “If there is one thing I have been impressed with over the last decades, it is that when the environmental community defines a number one priority, something happens,” he remarked in 1997. “Not always something good—but something.”

Chapter 7: (p. 343)

With his academic credentials, a novel strategy that split the fossil fuel industry in three, and deft lobbying of pragmatic environmentalists, Lay donned the mantle of energy expert and big thinker. Whereas other energy executives thought in terms of quarters and the upcoming year, Lay’s messages had a social-good, longer-term quality that seemed to set him apart.

The Age of Oil was about to decline, Lay declared. Natural gas would bridge the fossil fuel era to a renewable-energy epoch. “I would guess that, within a century or so, we are going to see a big share of our total energy needs served by renewable energy,” Lay stated. A complete transformation to 100 percent renewables was forecast in 200–300 years.

But was Enron’s architect an energy prophet—or a faux philosopher sanctimoniously promoting his bottom line? Ken Lay certainly read Christopher Flavin, the most thoughtful of the environmental energy activists. Flavin’s books and booklets championing a government-directed transition to renewables were worth study. But the Worldwatch expert assumed rather than justified his fossil-fuel alarmism. His lawyer-like briefs did not carefully consider opposite views. His footnote-laden work was glorified advocacy, not true scholarship.

Bridge Fuel: MIT Study (2011)

The natural-gas bridge-fuel strategy was still alive in 2010/2011, although environmental groups were getting off board. “Natural Gas Could Serve as ‘Bridge’ Fuel to Low-Carbon Future,” stated an article in Scientific American. a report on a two-year, 287-page study from MIT, The Future of Natural Gas (2011). Joel Kirkland of ClimateWire reported:

The MIT team of researchers was led by Ernest Moniz, a physics professor and director of the MIT Energy Initiative. Moniz’s name often floats around Washington when it comes time to choose another energy secretary. A major sponsor of the report is the American Clean Skies Foundation, a Washington think tank created and funded by the natural gas industry.

It was coal-to-gas in the electricity sector–and also a move to natural gas vehicles.

Automakers that take the plunge into compressed natural gas vehicles would see a significant jump in demand under a national climate policy that makes carbon dioxide emissions costly. Biofuels are expected to advance, but it’s unclear how quickly and at what cost to important food crops. But even with biofuels in the picture, MIT projects natural gas vehicles will be 15 percent of the private vehicle fleet by 2050.

But a decade later, natural gas would no longer be the flavor of the month–until the present energy crisis…. “Natural Gas is a Bridge to Nowhere” (Energy Transition: January 07, 2021): “Natural gas is gladly referred to as a ‘bridge fuel’ by its proponents,” noted Paul Hockenos:

But this was the thinking of ten years ago – and it is no longer valid. The fast pace of renewables-based systems’ technical progress – and plummeting costs – has, together with new studies on gas’s toxic methane emissions, cast a new, much less sanguine light on natural gas.

These developments throw into question the natural gas projects still being funded by the EU, which intends to rachet up its greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2030 to 55%, compared to 1990 levels. This should put the EU on a path to reach climate neutrality by 2050.”

And so the debate continues….

One Comment for “Natural Gas as a ‘Bridge Fuel’: Back to the 1980s/90s”

  1. Ed Reid  

    Natural gas is the structural support for the renewable plus storage ‘bridge to nowhere”.

    To quote one of my college math professors: “Make one mistake, bridge fall down. Therefore, no partial credit.”

    If fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, are removed from service too soon, the instability of the renewables plus storage energy economy will become painfully obvious.

    “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”, George Santayana


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