This web exclusive appeared on hcn.org on January 15, 2014
Shift more of the nation off coal-powered electricity and onto that supplied by natural gas, and what do you get? A significant reduction in the carbon emissions driving the alarming climatic shifts we already experience in our daily lives. That’s the theory anyway, based on the fact that natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide that coal does when burned. And if you put aside concerns about drilling’s impacts to air and water quality, it’s an important one, since this electricity switch may account for a significant portion of the overall decrease in U.S. greenhouse gas releases that’s occurred over the last few years.
Trouble is, the climate benefits of natural gas hinge on just how much is leaking from the wells, pipelines, compressor stations and other infrastructure used to extract and deliver the fuel. But due to the paucity of comprehensive data, the large margins of error in the findings and the wildly disparate conclusions of various researchers, nobody’s quite sure what the percentage is. Methane, natural gas’s primary component, is a vastly more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, though more short-lived; as Sarah Keller reported for High Country News last summer, as little as 3 percent loss could cancel out the emissions reductions achieved by moving from coal to gas. Recent studies certainly don’t stoke confidence. One based on thousands of actual air samples, published in the The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November, concluded that U.S. methane emissions were actually 1.5 times higher than previously thought, and that those for the oil and gas industry in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas were 5 times higher, reports The New York Times.
Given this, you’d think the industry would be falling all over itself to do away with leaks and thus help ensure its place in the U.S. energy pantheon long into the future, as well as improve its dismal public image. More…