A new study in the journal Science, showing methane emissions from U.S. natural gas operations that were 60% higher than official estimates, is undercutting the claim that gas can serve as a bridge to a renewable energy future.
The research, which brought together 19 authors from 15 institutions led by the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund, “presents some of the most compelling evidence to date that switching to gas from dirtier fuels like coal might not be as effective a climate strategy as its proponents suggest, unless the gas industry improves how it controls leaks,” InsideClimate News reports.
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“It starts to have a material effect on just how clean a fuel natural gas really is,” said co-author Ramon Alvarez of the EDF.
The conservative estimate in the study was that 2.3% of the natural gas extracted across the U.S. leaks in the course of production, processing, and transportation, InsideClimate states. “This much leaked methane would have roughly the same climate impact in the short-term as emissions from all U.S. coal-fired power plants,” and that total “doesn’t count leaks from local delivery lines, another widespread problem.”
“The argument for fracking as a climate solution just went down in flames,” Think Progress headlines, showing that “methane leaks from natural gas production wipe out any climate benefits.”
But while EDF noted that methane is 84 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time span, President Fred Krupp said the research still pointed to an opportunity for natural gas. “Over the long term, the climate impacts of using gas to generate electricity will be significantly less than those of using coal, even with high methane emissions,” he told the Washington Post. And “if methane emissions were reduced, which they can be easily, it could deliver significant short-term climate benefits, as well.”
The study, the culmination of work that began in 2011, involved analysis of measurements from more than 400 natural gas well pads in six basins, “from various facilities and components used in oil and gas production, and from aerial surveys across regions with oil and gas infrastructure,” ICN states. “The aerial surveys confirmed the spot check findings, making the results more robust.”
The study also concluded that equipment failures and operator errors—not chronic leaks—explained a large share of the emissions that exceeded Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates. “Ninety percent was coming from tanks—the vents and hatches,” Alvarez said. “These tank vents are designed to release pressure because otherwise they might burst. But why are they venting so frequently?” Stanford University’s Robert Jackson said companies may not be reporting those episodes to the EPA—which would explain why they don’t show up in the official data.
“A company that finds such a leak might view it as an exception rather than as normal for their operations, so perhaps they don’t include that in what they report.” he said. “These large emissions are unusual, but they’re real.”
On Think Progress, veteran climate hawk Joe Romm recaps the arguments against natural gas as a bridge fuel. “The missing piece in both the study and the coverage…is that countless studies have made clear that natural gas does not just displace dirty coal in the power system,” he writes. “It displaces many carbon-free sources of power, including nuclear and renewables.”