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Methane: Pushing us from the frying pan into the fire

Posted by Barbara Gottlieb on July 20, 2015

A recent report by our friends at Ceres shows that U.S. electrical utilities are reducing their CO2 emissions.  That’s good news -- but before we celebrate, let’s not forget the climate impacts of the rapidly growing natural gas industry. 

Natural gas now produces more electricity in the U.S. than coal, according to a recent analysis of Energy Department data. And the methane that leaks from natural gas operations is a tremendous climate changer:  over its first 20 years in the atmosphere, methane is 84 to 86 times more potent a heat-trapper than carbon dioxide. That’s significant, because the next 20 years is exactly when we need to slash greenhouse gases and cool the climate.

The Ceres report was looking at greenhouse gases generated at the point of combustion, but to be real about climate change, we need to consider climate impacts wherever energy generation releases greenhouse gases.  Research indicates that methane leakage occurs at all stages of the natural gas process energy cycle, especially if we are talking about fracked gas:

  • At the well site, “flowback” water can emit methane, as can pipes, pumps, and controllers -- intentionally through venting and flaring, or accidentally.
  • Processing plants’ transport lines, pneumatic pumps, compressors, and dehydrators can leak methane. So can natural gas storage facilities.
  • The delivery system for natural gas, from underground pipelines to the gas meter at your home, can also be sources of leaks. Recent studies show that natural gas delivery systems in urban areas like DC and Boston leak massive amounts of methane.

As we gear up to welcome the Clean Power Plan, let’s hold firm that the transition needs to be from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.  Simply replacing coal with natural gas will push us (if you’ll pardon a cliché that is all too apt) from the frying pan into the fire.

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