Why are people who are passionate about saving us from the perils of global warming often found in opposition to natural gas drilling and pipelines?
If you’re worried about global warming and think we need to do something quickly, you should love natural gas. It emits 50% less CO2 per BTU of energy created than coal, 26% less than oil. An economically-driven switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation made the US in 2012 the only nation in the world to meet the emission reduction targets set for it in the Kyoto Protocol even though the Protocol was never ratified here. Moreover, natural gas is a necessary complement to renewable sources since it can be switched on quickly when the sun doesn’t shine and/or the wind doesn’t blow. Natural gas burning doesn’t release harmful SO2 and virtually eliminates ash and other particulates.
At the opposite extreme, if your concerns are mainly economic, Americans have saved a fortune by substituting natural gas for coal and oil in transportation, industry, and power generation. Cheap energy is leading to a comeback in American manufacturing.
There are three “environmental” arguments against use of natural gas.
- It’s a fossil fuel and it does emit CO2. Both parts of that statement are true. However, most of those coal plants would still be running and emitting twice as much CO2 per megawatt if it weren’t for natural gas (not to mention that electricity users are actually saving money from this switch). Making the perfect the enemy of the good never makes much sense.
- Fracking poses grave dangers to ground water. “Fracking” is a terrible name from a marketing PoV; it’s an unfortunate shorthand probably chosen by an engineer for hydraulic fracturing, which, together with the twin technology of horizontal drilling, has led to a cheap and abundant supply of natural gas in the US. However, this argument is largely a slander. I wrote a post about that here and will update it.
- Methane (the active ingredient of natural gas) is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 and huge dangerous quantities are released as consequence of natural gas use. The first part of this statement is true but the second isn’t. That’s what today’s post is about.
The Union of Concerned Scientists says that, if 9% of natural gas extracted escaped into the atmosphere, the net greenhouse effect of using natural gas would be the same as coal. They cite a range of estimates for natural gas leakage between 1% and 9%; so at the high end of the range, there'd be no CO2 emission decrease. However, even in their citations, I can’t find any support for the 9% number. Argonne National Laboratory gives a range of current estimates between 1.13 and 1.55%.
Union of Concerned Scientists also says:
“The good news is that proven, cost-effective technologies are available to significantly reduce fugitive methane emissions.
“Aging, leaky pipelines can be upgraded or replaced. Drilling site emissions can be better monitored, and effective use of available technologies can minimize the amount of fugitive methane that escapes.”
The Environmental Defense Fund agrees: “Oil and gas methane pollution is an urgent problem with a clear, low-cost fix.”
But how “urgent” is the problem? How much harm are fugitive emissions doing? Could much more natural gas be escaping as a byproduct of natural gas drilling and distribution than is commonly believed?
Here’s data from the United Nations sponsored IPCC report on the dangers of global warming. The chart below is from Chapter 6. It shows annual increases and decreases in the atmospheric concentration of methane.
Note that since wide-spread fracking for natural gas in the US began in 2008 and through the period of increased natural gas use worldwide after that, the rate of increase in atmospheric methane has actually declined. This isn’t what you’d expect if gas drilling and use were releasing significant new amounts of methane.
One reason there isn’t any correlation between natural gas drilling and use and atmospheric methane is that fossil fuel use as a whole (including methane emissions from oil drilling, pipeline leaks, etc.) is that, again according to the IPCC, fossil fuel use accounts for less than one-sixth of methane emissions, much less than the roughly one-third which comes from agriculture and half that comes from natural sources like swamps.
Again according to the study: “The growth rate of CH4 [methane] has declined since the mid-1980s, and a near zero growth rate (quasi-stable concentrations) was observed during 1999-2006, suggesting an approach to steady state where the sum of emissions are [sic] in balance with the sum of sinks…”.
The most important point in all this is that, unlike CO2, the amount of methane in the atmosphere isn’t going up. Also, unlike CO2, methane naturally decomposes over time. We don’t have a methane problem.
Bottom line: the environmental as well as economic benefits of using America’s abundant supply of natural gas have been and continue to be much, much greater than any harm from fugitive emissions. The industry has been, can, and should be reducing fugitive emissions. No excuse for not doing that. Building new pipelines is critical both to expanding the availability of natural gas and eliminating leakage from old pipes. More drilling for natural gas (responsibly, of course) is a pathway both to a better environment and a better economy.
Please note that I am not disinterested when it comes to natural gas. I founded a company which trucks natural gas to large users beyond the reach of pipelines and still have a financial interest in its success. I’m proud that it has both saved businesses by reducing their energy costs and vastly reduced emissions. Still, you have to watch my objectivity on this. The business is helped by low natural gas prices, hurt by low oil prices, would be helped by a tax on carbon dioxide (which I’m not advocating), and is not needed where pipelines do get built.
Other posts in the climate change series: