This article looks into the hidden costs of natural gas. Natural gas burns cleaner than its principal competitors’ coal and oil and so it is sometimes touted as a bridge fuel that can be used to smooth out a transition towards a renewable energy future.


This article takes the National Academy of Sciences 2009 paper Hidden Costs of Energy as its point of departure.

Overall, gas tends to be a cleaner fuel, with less hidden costs than oil and considerably less hidden costs than coal. In the 2009 National Academy of Sciences paper, where they surveyed 71% of the USA’s gas-powered plants, these produced $740 million in aggregate damages from emissions of SO2, NOx, and PM. These are hidden costs not accounted for in the marketplace but which have a very real impact. The figure is however lower than the figure for coal, which amounted to $68 billion.

Their study did however reveal that coal plants tended to be much larger power sources than gas, with net generation at the median coal plant being more than six times larger than that of the median gas facility.

A similar conclusion was drawn to the coal powered plants, whereby a very small number of plants are responsible for a disproportionately large amount of the hidden costs. In the case of gas, the 10% of plants with the largest damages produced 65% of the air-pollution damages.

Whilst coal is far more damaging for the environment, which means that environmental pollution control measures can have a big effect. In the case of gas, they were predicting only a modest increase in the cleanliness of this fuel into the future.

What you need to know

This article looked into the hidden costs of natural gas. A lot is made of the cleanliness of natural gas. It is certainly abundant and somewhat clean, with the ability to play a role in a transition towards a sustainable future, but the more limited the role, the better.

We looked into the hidden costs of gas power plants in the USA, which was calculated at $740 million per year, not including climate change impacts. This number is overshadowed by the incredibly high figure for coal, which demonstrated that if gas replaces coal generation, then that is a win for the environment. Providing this does not stifle the development of clean renewable alternatives.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or reach out to me on social media. What do you think the world needs to do to move beyond natural gas?

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I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby

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