Sustained Outrage

Are greenhouse benefits of natural gas overstated?

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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.