Building natural gas plants to replace coal-fired power is not a solution to the climate crisis; it merely replaces one fossil fuel with another. Burning natural gas is not carbon-free; gas produces approximately 60 percent of the carbon pollution emitted by a coal plant, depending on its efficiency. In addition, natural gas is primarily methane, and methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over its first 20 years in the atmosphere – and methane leaks into the atmosphere throughout the natural gas “lifecycle,” as we detail below. Between its CO2 emissions and methane leaks, natural gas releases as much CO2 equivalents as burning coal.
Methane leakage can undermine the Clean Power Plan. A report published in Scientific American suggests that due to leakage, the natural gas system threatens our ability to achieve climate goals through the Clean Power Plan. Referring to an interactive tool that runs various methane leakage scenarios, the article notes that, even given modest leak rates and an aggressive transition, “we could still end up with little or no climate benefits by 2030 after an enormous financial and political investment in natural gas.”[i]
Finally, natural gas extraction by the method known as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is associated with air and water pollution that can have significant impacts on human health.
Climate impacts of methane release
The climate-forcing impact of methane far exceeds that of carbon dioxide, although it persists less time in the atmosphere. Over a 100-year timeframe, methane is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. But over a 20-year timeframe – which is the timeframe that matters, given how much world temperatures have risen and how short our window is to avoid a climate “tipping point” – methane is 86 times more potent.[ii] Thus, replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas replaces one greenhouse gas with another, far more powerful driver of global warming. Although carbon dioxide emissions would be lowered, climate change would be made worse.
Methane leakage: frequent, intensive
Leaks of methane occur at multiple points during the natural gas lifecycle, and are far greater than was previously estimated. At the point of extraction, methane escapes when wells are being drilled and the underlying rock is being fractured or fracked. Some gas is released deliberately from the wellsite when infrastructure has not yet been constructed to process and transport it.
Accidental leaks take place at multiple points after extraction: during gas processing, transport, and delivery, and from faulty wells. Leakage can continue for years from wells that have been shut down. According to Schlumberger, one of the world’s largest companies specializing in fracking, about five percent of wells leak immediately, 50 percent leak after 15 years, and 60 percent leak after 30 years.[iii]
Natural gas also leaks at many sources in the associated infrastructure, including pipelines, compressor stations, dehydrators, processing plants, rail tankers, flare stacks, and storage depots. Compressor stations and pipelines are important sources of methane leakage, often far from the wellsite.
Storage facilities can also be a serious source of methane leakage, as the catastrophic Aliso Canyon leak in California exemplifies. That massive leak, which began in October 2015, continues uncontrolled as of mid-January 2016; the Environmental Defense Fund estimates that the amount of leaked methane up to that time was comparable to burning 842,919,000-plus gallons of gasoline.[iv] The news source Inside Climate News stated that more than 400 underground natural gas storage sites in 31 states hold “huge” storehouses of natural gas and are subject to “little” regulatory oversight.[v]
Finally, methane leakage has been well-documented from the aging pipelines that transport natural gas to homes and businesses for heating.
Other health issues associated with natural gas extraction
Threats to water. The process of extracting natural gas using fracking creates additional threats. Fracking uses a mixture of toxic chemicals that are mixed with millions of gallons of water and forced deep underground to fracture rock formations. When those fracking fluids are withdrawn, they are accompanied by naturally occurring heavy metals, radioactive elements and extremely salty brine. The process of drilling and fracturing raises serious risks of leakage of the fracking fluid into aquifers and into surface waters, risking contamination of the water people rely on for drinking, cooking and bathing, agricultural irrigation, and industrial uses.
Toxic chemicals. Fracking fluids contain chemicals that have been listed as hazardous air pollutants, carcinogens, or pollutants regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. These include methanol, ethylene glycol, and formaldehyde, along with a slew of others. The high toxicity of these chemicals, and the frequency with which they pollute the air, water and land around fracking operations, are cause for concern. Due to lack of regulations, oil and gas companies in many states do not have to disclose what chemicals they use in fracking fluid.
Air toxics. The fracking process releases multiple air toxics. Among the worst are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the use of toxic chemicals or from the gas deposits themselves. These include benzene, a known carcinogen that can cause leukemia and other cancers, as well as reproductive and developmental disorders; toluene, where long-term exposure may affect the nervous system and can cause birth defects; and methane, ethane and propane, where high levels of exposure may cause collapse, convulsions, coma, and death.
Particulate pollution. The fracking process also exposes local communities to significant diesel pollution from the trucks that make thousands of trips to each well site, as well as diesel-powered compressors and other equipment that is in almost constant operation. Diesel pollution produces particulate matter that can lodge deep in the lungs and contribute to respiratory disease, heart attacks, and cancer. Diesel pollution also contributes to ground-level ozone formation.
Ground-level ozone. VOCs contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone. Ozone, also called smog, is formed when volatile organic compounds mix with nitrous oxides from the exhaust of diesel-fueled trucks, generators and compressors. Ozone can trigger asthma attacks, aggravate other chronic lung diseases, and aggravate pre-existing heart problems like angina and significantly increase the chance of premature death. VOCs and ozone pollution have been detected at dangerous levels at fracking sites in states including Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. A 2011 study of a fracking area in Wyoming found peak ozone levels in rural WY higher than those found in Los Angeles.
Water usage and contamination. Fracturing requires up to 5 million gallons of water per frack, per well. That water is mixed with dozens to hundreds of chemical substances, including known toxins and carcinogens. The massive quantities of flowback water can’t be used again for drinking or cooking, bathing, agriculture, or recreation. Neither municipal waste water treatment facilities nor desalination plants can treat this wastewater adequately. Some states allow companies to store their wastewater in underground injection wells; however, recent studies have linked injection wells to earthquakes in Oklahoma and Ohio. Additionally, fracking’s massive consumption – and contamination – of water has created water availability problems in California.
Social impacts. The rapid growth of this industrial process and the influx of large numbers of temporary workers can cause social disruption. Local public services, transportation infrastructure and housing stock may be unable to keep up with the demand. Some communities have witnessed increased crime, housing shortages, increased rates of sexually transmitted disease, loss of community cohesion, and a breakdown in the feeling of well-being. These social impacts can also lead to an increase in stress.
In addition, hydraulic fracturing generates heavy truck traffic to haul in water, fracking sands, chemicals, and equipment, and to haul away the vast amounts of wastewater, resulting in heavy truck traffic on rural roads. This traffic contributes to diesel pollution and accidents, impedes the movement of fire and rescue emergency vehicles, and increases costs for local governments.
Noise pollution. Noise pollution, associated with fracking operations, can cause hearing loss, insomnia, irritability, decreased focus, increased blood pressure and increased stress.
Impacts on farm animals. Fracking has been shown to have impacts on farm animals that breathe outside air and drink directly from surface water (ponds, streams, and puddles). Cases of infertility, stillbirths, and premature deaths among farm animals have been documented.
Investment in natural gas would be long-term
Finally, there is another impact we must consider when we assess the option of natural gas as a fuel to replace coal. Building new plants or adapting coal-fired power plants to burn natural gas would require significant investment. Building the infrastructure required to transport gas to these plants would require even more investment. Thus, once natural gas plants are built, utilities will have a vested interest in using them for years, in order to amortize their costs. This would have the effect of locking us into reliance on this climate-damaging fossil fuel for decades to come. Not only that; opting for natural gas is likely to displace the development of clean, healthy renewable energy sources. This would be a very harmful outcome, given the multiple benefits of renewable energy – for clean air, for health, for the environment, and for employment.
[i] Climate Central. (2014, August 5). Methane leak rate proves key to climate change goals. Scientific American.
[ii] Romm, J. (2013, October 2. More bad news for fracking: IPCC warns methane traps much more heat than we thought. Climate Progress.
[iii] Concerned Health Professionals of NY, Physicians for Social Responsibility. (2015, October 14.) Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction).
[iv] Environmental Defense Fund. Aliso Canyon leak sheds light on national problem.
[v] Inside Climate News. Do Hundreds of Other Gas Storage Sites Risk a Methane Leak Like California’s?