The Oil and the Glory

Exxon Mobil: Goodbye coal, hello natural gas

Exxon Mobil has considerably raised its forecast for the global switch to natural gas from far-dirtier coal. Exxon — whose energy models have much influence because of the intellectual firepower the company’s forecasters brings to bear — says that not only will natural gas surpass coal use in the next two decades, but it will ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Exxon Mobil has considerably raised its forecast for the global switch to natural gas from far-dirtier coal. Exxon — whose energy models have much influence because of the intellectual firepower the company’s forecasters brings to bear — says that not only will natural gas surpass coal use in the next two decades, but it will also start to come close to oil consumption, as Angel Gonzales reports at the Wall Street Journal. The big takeaway from Exxon’s 20-year forecast, released today: China’s natural gas demand will rise six-fold.

These are enormously consequential forecasts. We’ve been discussing what we think is coal’s dim future for some months. Energy forecasts going forward are almost entirely founded in China’s voracious appetite; it’s been presumed that China will account for some 90 percent of the increase in global coal use over the coming two or three decades. But that’s never made sense, unless you presume that China’s Communist Party has a death wish. Unrest has already broken out in China over pollution, and it is simply absurd to conclude that the population will tolerate an order of magnitude greater coal smoke, or even more.

As we’ve discussed, the direction of the global energy supply will relatively soon trigger a sectoral shift in how China produces electricity. We will have supply-push demand: So much natural gas is sloshing around the world — from Qatar, Australia, Yemen, and now possibly liquefied natural gas from the United States — that China will shift massively to gas-fired electricity plants. This has enormous implications in terms of climate-change forecasts. In a nutshell, global warming may be less of a problem than a lot of people currently think because natural gas emits one-third of the CO2 as coal.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>