Are greenhouse benefits of natural gas overstated?

January 25, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

A drilling rig used to bore thousands of feet into the earth to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shales deep underground is seen on the hill above the pond on John Dunn’s farm in Houston, Pa., in October.Photo by Keith Srakocic/Associated Press.

This morning at the Capitol, the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association will be promoting a report that details the economic impacts of drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation.

But a new report out this morning from Abrahm Lustgarten at ProPublica may have more important news regarding the natural gas industry in West Virginia and across the country:

The United States is poised to bet its energy future on natural gas as a clean, plentiful fuel that can supplant coal and oil. But new research by the Environmental Protection Agency—and a growing understanding of the pollution associated with the full “life cycle” of gas production—is casting doubt on the assumption that gas offers a quick and easy solution to climate change.

Advocates for natural gas routinely assert that it produces 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal and is a significant step toward a greener energy future. But those assumptions are based on emissions from the tailpipe or smokestack and don’t account for the methane and other pollution emitted when gas is extracted and piped to power plants and other customers.

The EPA’s new analysis doubles its previous estimates for the amount of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and is vented from gas wells, drastically changing the picture of the nation’s emissions that the agency painted as recently as April. Calculations for some gas-field emissions jumped by several hundred percent. Methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously reported.

When all these emissions are counted, gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, or perhaps even less.

Even accounting for the new analysis, natural gas—which also emits less toxic and particulate pollution—offers a significant environmental advantage. But the narrower the margins get, the weaker the political arguments become and the more power utilities flinch at investing billions to switch to a fuel that may someday lose the government’s long-term support.

You can read the whole ProPublica story here, and they’ve posted two reports that support the story here and here.

One Response to “Are greenhouse benefits of natural gas overstated?”

  1. David L. Ballard says:

    Natural gas is much cleaner than coal, hands down. If the EPA is going to consider natural gas in it’s unburned state a pollutant or greenhouse gas and add those raw fugitive emissions to the emissions natural gas emits from tailpipes and smokestacks, it must also consider coal’s entire environmental impact.
    Sure, methane is a greenhouse gas and yes, methane is vented into the atmosphere in it’s unburned or raw state whenever pipeline facilities and wellheads are vented (purged). Yes, there are leaks in the millions of miles of pipeline infrastructure across this country. But this article is more than just a little unfair with respect to coal/natural gas pollution comparisons when it looks at methane in all of its pollution capacity and limits coal;s pollution to emissions from smokestacks.
    There are literally thousands of abandoned underground coal mines across the coal producing states that emit incredible amounts of methane on a daily basis. Has anyone at EPA counted the thousands upon thousands of old surface auger bore sites in Appalachia alone? All of the sites have the potential and indeed many of them do, emit huge amounts of methane. What about old coal refuse piles, are these also sources of fugitive methane emissions, has anyone at the EPA considered these as a source for greenhouse gas emissions? Coal vs methane with respect to pollution capacities? Really, is this article for real?
    Here are the top 10 methane emission sources as of CY 2008:
    In the United States, the largest methane emissions come from the decomposit­ion of wastes in landfills, ruminant digestion and manure management associated with domestic livestock, natural gas and oil systems, and coal mining.

    U.S. Methane Emissions by Source (TgCO2 Equivalent­s) CY 2008

    Enteric Fermentati­on 140.8
    Landfills 126.3
    Natural Gas Systems 96.4
    Coal Mining 67.6
    Manure Management 45.0
    Forest Land Remaining Forest Land 11.9
    Petroleum Systems 29.1
    Wastewater Treatment 24.3
    Stationary Combustion 6.7
    Rice Cultivatio­n 7.2
    Add to coal mining the yet undetermined emission levels from the sources I identified earlier and then add to those numbers the pollutants all of us see each day from power plants and other coal fired emission sources, the evidence is quite clear. Natural gas is by far the cleaner enegy source by order of magnitude.

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