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Climate Benefits of Natural Gas May Be Overstated

Posted on Jan 25, 2011

By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

(Page 2)

But industry groups point out that gas looks attractive compared to the alternatives.

Nuclear energy is less polluting than gas from a climate-changing perspective, but it is costly and viewed skeptically in the United States because of the dangers of disposing of radioactive waste. So-called clean coal—including underground carbon sequestration—could work, but the technology has repeatedly stalled, remains unproven, and is at least 15 years away. Renewable sources such as wind and solar are being developed rapidly, but the energy is expensive and won’t provide a commanding supply of electricity for decades.

Gas, on the other hand, is plentiful, accessible and local.

Methane Is a Potent Climate Gas

Measuring the amount of natural gas that is leaking during drilling is one challenge. Getting a grip on how that gas—which is mostly methane—affects the environment, and what effect it will have on global warming, is another. And on that, some scientists still disagree.

Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, as well as methane, propane and lesser-known gases that also affect climate change. For the purposes of standardization, all these gases are described together using the unit Co2e, or carbon dioxide “equivalent.” But because each gas has a different potency, or “warming” effect on the atmosphere, a factor is applied to convert it to an equivalent of carbon dioxide.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas and among the more potent greenhouse gases, has far more of an effect on climate change than carbon dioxide. But determining the factor that should be applied to measure its relative warming effect is still being debated.

To crunch its numbers, the EPA calculated the average concentration of methane in the atmosphere over a 100-year period and determined that over that period methane is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Using that equation, a ton of methane emissions is the equivalent of 21 tons of carbon dioxide.

But some scientists argue that the impact of methane gas should be calculated over a shorter time period, because methane degrades quickly, and because gas drilling releases large quantities of methane into the atmosphere all at once, likely concentrating and amplifying the effect.

Robert Howarth, an environmental biology professor at Cornell University, used research from the United Nations to calculate that if methane’s potency were considered over 20 years rather than 100 years, it would be 72 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in terms of its warming potential.

Figured that way, the climate effect of methane from natural gas would quickly outpace the climate effect of carbon dioxide from burning coal. Howarth’s research is incomplete and has been criticized because at first he failed to figure in methane emissions from coal mining. But he said that after correcting his error, the emissions from coal barely changed, and the data still showed that the intensity of methane could erase the advantages of using natural gas.

“Even small leakages of natural gas to the atmosphere have very large consequences,” Howarth wrote in a March memorandum, which he says is a precursor to a more thorough study that could begin to scientifically answer these questions. “When the total emissions of greenhouse gases are considered … natural gas and coal from mountaintop removal probably have similar releases, and in fact natural gas may be worse in terms of consequences on global warming.”

Howarth says his latest calculations show that the type of shale gas drilling taking place in parts of Texas, New York and Pennsylvania leads to particularly high emissions and would likely be just as dirty as coal.

Environmental groups say factual data on how much methane is emitted from gas fields—and what the warming effect of that methane is—should be locked down before major policy decisions are made to shift the nation toward more reliance on gas.

“You can’t just assume away some of these sources as de minimus,” said Tom Singer, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council who focuses on emissions reporting in New Mexico. “You need to get a handle on them before you can make a determination.”

Less Pollution Means More Profit

The EPA tracks fugitive and vented methane emissions through a program called Natural Gas STAR and then works to get drilling companies to save money by stanching their leaks and selling the gas they capture for profit. It was a discrepancy in the Gas STAR data that prompted the EPA to sharply revise the government’s greenhouse gas statistics late last year.

According to Gas STAR’s most recent figures, at least 1.6 percent of all the natural gas produced in the United States each year, about 475 billion cubic feet, is assumed to be leaked or vented during production. But those numbers were reported before the EPA adjusted its greenhouse gas estimates, and they are expected to rise when the new estimates are plugged into the calculation. If companies could capture even the gas leaked in Gas STAR’s current estimates, it would be worth $2.1 billion a year at today’s prices and would cut the nation’s emissions by more than 2 percent right off the bat. Several studies show that maintaining and installing equipment to capture the emissions pays for itself within 24 months.

Gas STAR has seen some success in pushing companies to use these capture tools. The EPA’s 2010 greenhouse gas inventory, using 2008 data, shows that even though more gas is being produced from more wells, total emissions from that production have decreased by more than 26 percent since 1990, mostly due to the progress of Gas STAR. But while these figures demonstrate that Gas STAR is effective in lowering the annual rate of emissions, the EPA’s new figures essentially move the starting point, and, when recalculated, 2008 emissions are now understood to have been 53 percent higher than emissions in 1990.


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By prosefights, January 26, 2011 at 9:02 pm Link to this comment

Obama State of the Union address Tuesday January 25, 2011.

“In 2011, half of U.S. households will devote at least 20 percent of their after-tax income to energy. Ten years ago, these households spent only 12 percent of their income on energy. The affordability of coal-fueled electricity has helped moderate this increase in energy costs, and continued reliance on coal can help the U.S. to recover economically and American businesses to compete globally.” 

Big trouble ahead?

No way around

1 kWh = 3412.14163 BTU?

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, January 26, 2011 at 3:11 pm Link to this comment

QUOTE (of an avatar, quoting a misleading article):

“San Francisco’s Dept. of Waste figures it pays $4,000/ton to recycle plastic bags for which it receives $32/ton.”

That’s how externalization of industry costs work. They create the cost, and the taxpayers get the bill, with every externalization of cost profiting private industry at public expense.

The EE&T editor/writer of that article, Leland Teschler, cheerfully assaults recycling efforts and promotes Waste-to-Energy (WTE) with a bogus implied argument that it would be better for people to toss glass and plastic recyclables in the landfill to be used as fuel for WTE electric generation plants.

It’s bogus, because the first part of any reasonably responsible WTE processing is removal of non-fuel recyclables, like those beer bottles that Terry callously discards. What Terry does when he throws his beer bottles in the “trash” garbage is externalize the recycling cost to him (a few seconds of his time) upon his municipality. It costs his WTE using municipality a considerable amount of money to separate all the recyclables from the burnable garbage that the irresponsible citizens like him have thoughtlessly discarded together.

When my Electric Co-Op held its public hearing for its WTE project, I asked if they had considered the prospect that the plant would be short-lived because so much of what is discarded today can’t be used for fuel (our WTE does not burn any glass, or any plastic that can be separated out — recyclable or not). The CEO/General Manager answered that yes they had. The project would necessarily be of short-term benefit, because its fuel source would mainly be the gas from the decomposition of old organic garbage (from back when near everything wasn’t made of plastic as it is today), remnants of old garbage unearthed not yet decomposed, and the burnable organic material that constitutes a relatively small part of the garbage discarded today. The primary purpose of having the WTE plant was to extend the life of the county dump. It’s an immense public expense to build a new landfill. Filling the old one with recyclables, like Teschler suggests, makes that immense expense come sooner and more often.

One thing that favors those who oppose recycling is that we’ll not have a human habitable climate planet about the same time we run out of mineral resources to mine.

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By prosefights, January 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm Link to this comment

“Terry knows what he’s talking about. Canada’s National Post reports that all the glass collected last year by recycling programs in Calgary, Edmonton, and several other Canadian cities ended up landfilled because there were no buyers for it. The situation is similar for plastic. Reports are that Germany has millions of tons of recyclable plastics piled up in fields because nobody wants the stuff. And it is literally more expensive to collect some recyclables than to just pitch them. San Francisco’s Dept. of Waste figures it pays $4,000/ton to recycle plastic bags for which it receives $32/ton.”

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By Inherit The Wind, January 26, 2011 at 11:02 am Link to this comment

There are so many ways to reduce usage before we need to compromise our lifestyle, that it isn’t funny.
1) If every American roof is painted white, estimated reductions in summer AC usage run as high as taking half the cars in the nation off the road.
2) Solar PVs on houses greatly reduce power companies’ generation.  If all new house are built with solar panels, general consumption of fueled electricity goes down.
3) Geo-thermal heat pumps. Using that natural underground temp of 50-58 degrees, heat pumps, even in the coldest climates, can run efficiently, replacing home heating oil and natural gas.
4) Smaller wind generators.  Some are vertical turbines that can generate 1k watts or more.  Far less intrusive and ideal for roof-top mounting.  Larger versions would be ideal for inner-city sky-scraper applications.
5) Obvious uses: Why use gas-based pool heaters when there are plenty of solar options and heat pumps (very efficient for pool heating).
6) Hydrogen.  If this can be captured at the individual household level, and reused, it’s non-polluting.  How? Have wind and solar run a fuel cell in reverse to gen H2.  Then use the H2 with the fuel cell to gen energy when the wind and solar aren’t available.

And these are just a few of the obvious ones.  Natural Gas has a few obvious advantages.
1) The US has a lot of it.
2) Reduction of dependence on foreign oil and LNG
3) Reduced transportation costs.

But the problems are being covered up, in that production has to have fewer leaks, and that the hydro-cracking method pollutes ground water (denied by the industry).

Methane is a natural element in our environment, like CO2.  It helps regulate the ozone layer and is produced in massive amounts by living critters, of which the largest contributor is (no foolin’) termites.  But, like anything else, excessive amounts are bad.

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By SteveK9, January 26, 2011 at 9:56 am Link to this comment

The solution is nuclear power.  The human race will get there,
basically because 2+2 really does equal 4.  This from a lifelong
liberal, and a scientist.  The ‘problems’ with nuclear are myths. 
The technology that fossil fuel companies really fear is nuclear,
wind and solar are fine with them, because they will not really
change business as usual.

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By SoTexGuy, January 26, 2011 at 9:06 am Link to this comment

Queenie has it right..


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By Marshall, January 26, 2011 at 3:40 am Link to this comment

There is no such thing as “Green Energy” - each has its drawbacks and all are
major.  A varied mix of energy sources (including oil), each harmful in its own way
but mitigated somewhat by avoiding over-reliance, is the only responsible way to
deal with the fallout from the demands for energy by a growing world.

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By David J. Cyr, January 26, 2011 at 12:01 am Link to this comment

The Un-Clean and Un-Natural Side of Natural Gas:

BOOK REVIEW: Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air:

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By Big B, January 25, 2011 at 8:36 pm Link to this comment

We are so fucked.

When was the last time you heard anybody in the US mention that the oil will run out by 2050?(and that’s the oil companies estimates, in truth, it’s probably sooner than that) The coal industry has spent alot of green (pun intended) to lie to us about the amount of coal that is left under the USA. (they say its around 300 years worth, most reponsible estimates put it at 100 years at current consumtion) And of course natural gas is going to save us all, while poisoning the (fracking) countryside.

Who would have thought that americans would, instead of accepting and going full bore at a future of alternative energy, that we would dig and pump every last once of oil, coal and gas, out of the earth. But of course, we are the same nation that believes in angels, and ghosts, and invisible men in the sky that will always provide us with what we need.

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By anon, January 25, 2011 at 8:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Critics of Nat Gas as a transport fuel are an odd combination of chemical, metal refiners and electric producers (which both use CNG as feedstock) and the alt-energy and biofuel guys. 

The first is trying to keep CNG for traditional uses.  Creating plastics, aluminum and power.

The second, trying to keep CNG out of transports to protect there investments.

Regarding this EPA report, follow the money.  Who did the research?  And who provided them their grants? 

The truth is CNG for transport fuel is coming and can’t be stopped.  The market has spoken.

Nat Gas as a transport fuel is even used in areas with major oil finds (Iran, Venezuela, Pakistan).

Now that we have found SOOOO much and it is SOOO cheap and SOOO here in the US, it will be used here too.

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By Conden, January 25, 2011 at 8:02 pm Link to this comment

Natural gas is a dirty, toxic fuel.  We need to pursue only solar, tidal, wind, and geothermal electricity, and use as little of it as we possibly can.  Empower a local, organic, diverse agriculture of nutritious plant foods, and forget about trying to protect the current, unsustainable fossil gulag we live under.

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By Queenie, January 25, 2011 at 6:32 pm Link to this comment

Our energy policy is based on a false assumption that we do not need to cut back our usage to conserve and reduce our dependence on any finite fuel.

Here in Maine the wind energy bandwagon is blasting off the tops of ridges and mountains and clear-cutting vest swathes of forest yet none of the energy from wind will be used by Maine people. It will be transported down to big cities in other parts of New England on new super-duper lines paid for by the ratepayers of Maine.

If we retrofitted and insulated our aging infrastructure here, we would save more energy than all the wind power combined. And it would last longer than 20 or so years - the average lifespan of a windmill. And it would give many a job so badly needed in our state.

But that savings in fuel is called anti-business and ridiculed by wind “experts” who have popped up like toadstools on a wet summer day.

We all have to learn to live simpler lives and do with less so that others can simply live.

Reduce, reuse and recycle.

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