Natural gas’s dirty secret

Photo by Caelan Borowiec from

Natural gas has been touted as an environmentally friendly bridge between dirtier fossil fuels (coal and oil) and a clean, renewable energy future. While it is true that the average efficiency of electric power plants fueled by natural gas is superior to coal-fired plants, that comparison doesn’t account for drilling, processing and delivery to the site. Another popular claim is that natural gas is cleaner burning and should be substituted for oil wherever possible, whether for heating or transportation, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

The industry hype ignores a dirty secret: getting gas out of the ground and to the end user creates a volume of methane emissions that is not well documented nor is it widely regulated. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide that can dramatically increase the warming of the planet. Ignorance of the sources and effects of methane is leading industry and policymakers to make bad decisions that have far-reaching climate repercussions.

Robert Howarth and his colleagues at Cornell University were some of the earliest scientists to conduct research on the climate impacts of natural gas extraction, both conventionally and using hydrofracturing (fracking). Their 2011 paper was the first peer-reviewed report on methane and shale gas; it ignited a conversation within the scientific community and even generated some buzz in the mainstream media. The main takeaway is that natural gas extraction is far more damaging to the climate even than burning coal, when you factor in the effects of methane emissions from drilling, well completion, refining and transportation.

In an early presentation, both Howarth and his colleague Tony Ingraffea stress that their findings point to the dire need for further research, including on-site measurements of methane emissions. Howarth has continued to work in this area, publishing in April 2014 a thorough review of recent research by others, such as field measurements of methane releases from well sites. The evidence is mounting – and damning.

Once again, industry has gotten far ahead of the science and policy is lagging still further behind. Now that Howarth and others have gotten the conversation going, the EPA has recently updated their regulations to reduce methane emissions during well completion. These are slated to go into effect in January, 2015, twenty years after fracking began in the Barnett Shale in Texas, and ten years after it intensified in Pennsylvania.

This is a complex issue that’s finally being studied from many angles. For instance, the Post-Carbon Institute issued a gloomy report on the capacity of gas reserves in the U.S. to serve our ever-growing energy needs. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has also been working since 2012 to bring greater attention to natural gas and methane. They estimate that about 25% of the manmade global warming we are experiencing today is caused by methane. They fund research projects to track methane releases at every stage, from drilling to distribution, including the ancient gas lines under our city streets.

Ultimately, natural gas is just another fossil fuel with a better PR team than coal and oil. These scientific studies show that there’s no such thing as a climate-friendly fossil fuel. It’s time to get serious about weaning ourselves off them entirely and to embrace the clean energy conservation and generation technologies of the 21st century.

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