Climate activists have dropped the ball on methane releases from natural gas production, either buying into the notion of natural gas as a bridge fuel or flinching from the difficult task of explaining why that equation is a non-starter, 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben writes in a recent Yale Environment 360 post.
From policy-makers, to activists, to the general public, everyone touched by climate change needs urgently to understand a simple distinction, McKibben writes: natural gas when burned does help rein in greenhouse gas emissions, producing about half the CO2 produced from burning coal. But if methane leaks unburned into the air, it is almost 100 times more carbon-intensive than C02.
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Which means that “if you leak more than 2 or 3%,” he notes, “it’s worse for climate change than coal.”
So it’s bitter news to discover, with increasing frequency and accuracy, that natural gas production is a very leaky vessel, from wellhead to furnace. McKibben estimates the leakage rate at “at least 3% and probably higher,” meaning that “America has cut its carbon emissions, but only at the cost of dramatically increasing its methane emissions.”
But no one wants to hear about the broken bridge between natural gas and a climate fix—especially not Democratic politicians for whom natural gas was “their get-out-of-jail free card.”
“Just last week,” McKibben reports, “the New Orleans City Council—all Democrats—voted 6-1 to approve a big new gas-fired power plant.” And “sometime in the coming weeks, in Orange County in upstate New York, another vast new gas power plant is expected to go online—as soon as it’s hooked up to a new pipeline, one of literally dozens planned across the country.”
Industry doesn’t want to be asked to do the math on the methane front, either. Observing that “company after company responds to the climate threat by offering to produce more natural gas to replace coal,” McKibben offers language from Exxon’s website as Exhibit A:
“The abundant supplies of natural gas coming from America’s shale fields are positioning the U.S. to be a net exporter of natural gas, which can mean lower emissions worldwide.” The subtext, McKibben notes, is that “we’re not the problem, we’re the solution.”
But McKibben also faults the activist community for failing to see far enough ahead to know the natural gas bridge was always broken. He says he has “no confidence” that climate hawks “will ever manage” to communicate the critical danger leaked methane poses to the climate, to policy-makers and the broader public. (And here’s an example of some of the industry pushback he’s up against.)
On a recent webinar, pioneering methane researcher and geochemist Robert Howarth of Cornell University called for a two-tiered greenhouse gas reporting framework to account for the impacts of shorter-lived but more immediately damaging greenhouse gases. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently mandates a single 100-year reporting framework, which makes sense for CO2 emissions, but Howarth is recommending a separate 20-year frame for methane.