Could Natural Gas Leaks Blow Away Its Green Advantage?
The recent boom in U.S. natural gas production has been hailed as the cure to all America’s ills. Gas, its boosters say, can reduce household heating expenses, enhance energy security, create jobs, and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
That last part is crucial to winning over environmentalists. “Over its full cycle of production, distribution, and use, natural gas emits just over half as many greenhouse gas emissions as coal for equivalent energy output,” the green group Worldwatch Institute reported last August. But all of that may amount to a lot of hot air if researchers from Cornell University and the Environmental Defense Fund are right. Thanks to the little-known problem of methane leakage, in the short term at least, natural gas may be worse for the climate than other fossil fuels.
Natural gas is mostly methane, which is itself a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. And it leaks into the air at every point of the process of getting and using the fuel. The technology exists to capture the leaking gas at hydraulic fracturing - aka fracking - sites, but industry officials say it’s not worth the cost. With the price of natural gas having dropped 90 percent since 2005, that attitude is not likely to change soon.
Ramon Alvarez, a physical chemist who works at the Environmental Defense Fund, co-authored a study, published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that compares the impacts of natural gas with gasoline, diesel, and coal on the climate. His conclusion: “The amount of methane released can affect whether or not natural gas is a better fuel for the climate than other fuels.”
In February, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analyzed air samples from a region of Colorado where a lot of gas is being extracted through fracking. They found the air contained twice as much methane as the EPA had estimated there would be, suggesting a lot more methane than previously thought was leaking during extraction.