There’s long been a fallacy that solving the climate crisis requires increasing reliance on natural gas, a “cleaner” fuel that can push coal out of the market. Initial elation over the perceived benefits of natural gas over coal led to some environmental groups becoming strange bedfellows with the natural gas lobby, and delayed a more robust inquiry into whether natural gas really offered a pathway to reduced global warming. The blinders are now coming off, and it is increasingly clear that natural gas is not the answer. In fact, at a recent event in Washington D.C., Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund acknowledged that if an environmental group is serious about climate change, it cannot promote natural gas as a solution.
You’ve probably been told at some point that natural gas is 50% cleaner or has half the carbon pollution as coal. This is misleading. While it is true that burning the same amount of natural gas and coal results in lower carbon dioxide emissions from the former, combustion is only the final stage of the natural gas lifecycle. There are significant global warming impacts from previous stages that are glossed over when looking only at combustion.
Chiefly, the problem is methane, a global warming gas over twenty-one times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over the course of a century. In a shorter, twenty year timeframe, methane has nearly seventy-two times the global warming potential as carbon dioxide! The shorter window is key because science overwhelmingly indicates that we have to sharply reduce global warming pollution within the next decade to have good odds of curbing runaway climate change and keeping temperature increase to a level that could avert the most devastating consequences.
Natural gas is primarily methane. Some of this methane leaks out during the extraction of natural gas, i.e. during hydraulic fracturing of the shale rock holding the deposits (“fracking”). Specifically, when “fracking” fluid rises back to the surface from natural gas wells, dissolved methane in it escapes. Methane also leaks from pipelines. Science shows that if the leakage rates are above 3.2%, then natural gas is just as bad for climate change as coal. While industry-wide measures for leakage rates are scanty, leakage rates are estimated at anywhere between two to eight percent. As more data emerges it appears leakage rates are actually at the higher end of this range. Some researchers warn that even if leakage is reduced, increasing our reliance on natural gas could still have a worse impact than coal. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) observed that even with a host of best practices, a natural gas boom will result in temperature rise this century of about 3.5 degrees Celsius, nearly twice the warming we’ve already experienced and are starting to see impacts from.
Currently, one of the most worrying impacts of natural gas is that its cheap prices have made it harder for low carbon energy to compete in the market. Instead of an expansion in renewables like solar and wind, investment is growing in natural gas, keeping our infrastructure further locked into a carbon-based energy source. Bear in mind that this discussion of natural gas and climate change did not even touch on the other hugely damaging impacts of fracking, including freshwater depletion (fracking a single well requires two to five million gallons of water; America already has over half a million natural gas wells, including in water-scarce regions), water contamination, toxic waste, and disruption of local communities by industrial incursion.
What does this mean for policy? It means we should not look to natural gas as a tool to mitigate global warming. The good news is that we have proven technologies that are cleaner. Here’s what should happen:
- End subsidies and all government incentives for natural gas, and increase incentives for renewables by the same amount (thereby keeping the burden on the exchequer from rising);
- Improve methane leakage reporting and make the information about leakage rates readily accessible;
- Reduce leakage rates in the industry by making existing pollution control technologies mandatory.
And to push the envelope a little bit:
- Increase research to ascertain the volume of natural gas that would be sufficient in the short term (aiming for ten years or less) to meet certain limited but key needs (accounting for growth in energy demand), such as backup capacity for renewable energy growth, and certain heavy industries that require peak load power;
- Based on such findings, establish narrow parameters for the growth of natural gas (up to a ten year timeframe), limiting its expansion. Identifying a tentative date (subject to review) when a moratorium on growth could come into effect would provide an end in sight and prevent getting further locked into this fossil fuel.
We must recognize that fossil fuels such as natural gas are yesterday’s story. To safeguard tomorrow we quickly need to replace high-risk twentieth century habits with smart twenty-first century solutions.