Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Natural gas, the media’s failures, and you

Dr. Donald A. Brown, Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law at Widener University School of Law, has posted a piece on this blog, US Media Fails to Educate The Public About Links Between Greater Natural Gas Use and Climate Change, that is a must read. With his permission, I am reposting it in its entirety below:

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal today reported on a new study by the University of Texas that found leakage rates of methane from natural gas fracking operations are lower than previously stated by US EPA. This report found that direct measurements of methane emissions from 190 onshore natural gas sites in the United States indicate that methane emissions from completed wells are are lower than commonly thought although the report also acknowledged that emissions from pneumatic controllers and other equipment associated with natural gas production facilities were higher than previously estimated.

The report also concluded that taking into account the lower emissions from completed wells and the higher emissions from other equipment, actual methane emissions are most likely 20% lower than previously estimated.

This report has created a large buzz on the internet because at issue is whether natural gas is a bridge fuel to lower the threat of climate change. If the methane leakage rate is less than 3.6%, then it is widely assumed that natural gas is better than coal. That is, if leakage levels are below this level it is generally assumed that switching to natural gas lowers the US carbon footprint and therefore greater natural gas production should be supported by citizens concerned about climate change. As a result the methane leakage rate issue has gathered enormous interest in climate change policy discussions.. Studies of methane leakage rates have reached widely different conclusions about actual leakage rates in part because different studies have used different: measurement methodologies, types of wells measured, portions of the the entire natural gas production process, and assumptions about leakage in the gas distribution process. The recent University of Texas study acknowledges that there are elements of the natural gas production to consumption cycle that were not fully considered. And so, it is likely that scientific conclusions about methane leakage rates will continue to change from study to study in the next few years.

Because natural gas may produce less CO2 equivalent per unit of energy produced, natural gas companies are pushing natural gas as at least a short- to medium-term solution to climate change

Yet, as we have written about before, there is one extraordinary important issue about the link between natural gas production and climate change that is rarely being reported on in the US press nor is it usually part of the US debate about natural gas fracking and its impact on climate change.

The methane leakage debate usually assumes if the methane leakage rate is low enough, switching from coal to natural gas as fuel should be welcomed by proponents of action on climate change. Yet what is notably missing in the media discussion of this issue is the urgency of moving to non-fossil fuels or energy technologies that produce very, very low carbon emissions to give the world any hope of prevent catastrophic climate change.

We explained the urgency of moving quickly to non-fossil energy in considerable detail in the recent entry on this website in Ethical Issues with Relying on Natural Gas as a Solution to Climate Change

Even if natural gas combustion creates approaching 50 percent less CO2 equivalent per unit of energy produced, an amount which is well beyond best case on ghg emission reductions, it will not create the much greater emissions reductions necessary in the next 30 years to give any hope of limiting warming from exceeding levels that will cause catastrophic impacts. In short, natural gas combustion can’t produce the the emissions reductions that are needed just a few decades to put the world on a safe ghg emissions pathway. Also investment in natural gas facilities may delay the needed rapid switch to non-fossil fuels. Although natural gas switching might help reduce the threat of climate change threat if methane leakage rates are at the lower end of the range discussed in the scientific literature in the very short term, the world needs massive investment in non-fossil technology as soon as possible.

In addition if coal combustion were to be replaced now by non-fossil fuel energy, it would help immediately much more than conversion of coal to natural gas combustion does in putting the world on an urgently needed ghg emissions reduction pathway needed to prevent catastrophic warming.

In addition, large investments in natural gas combustion facilities will likely make it harder to switch to non-fossil energy because these investors will likely demand a return on their investment in the natural gas plants before they are shut down.

Large investment in cheaper natural gas may also increase energy demand to levels that result in greater total releases of ghgs even assuming that natural gas produces less CO2 equivalent on a BTU basis than coal.

It is simply irresponsible for the US media to report on the methane leakage issue without explaining the urgency of moving to non-fossil energy.

Of great concern, some natural gas companies are on the one hand claiming that natural gas is better for the climate change while they fight legislation to increase the US share of renewable energy. A strong ethical case can be made that any political support for natural gas as a short-term bridge fuel should be conditioned on the natural gas industry promising to stop lobbying against rapid scale up of renewable energy programs.

What I see as his fundamental point — people don’t realize that natural gas doesn’t deliver enough of a reduction in our emissions to be a good idea — will lead us to the biggest single misstep in our response to the growing impacts of climate change unless we change course drastically and very soon.

As you’ve likely heard, the US EPA has issued a proposed rule for limiting CO2 emissions from US power plants.

See the EPA site for all the details, including the proposed rules, fact sheets, and a regulatory impact analysis.

Why bring this up in a post about natural gas, you may well ask. Consider the following from the World Resources Institute statement about the proposed new regulations (emphasis added):

Following is a statement by Kevin Kennedy, Director, U.S. Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute:

“Today’s announcement delivers a strong signal that the administration will use its authority to tackle climate change. These new rules will limit carbon pollution from all future U.S. power plants. That’s good news for people and the environment.

“While the new standards are relatively stringent, they provide power plants with options for compliance, including phasing in the use of carbon capture and storage. While not yet used on a wide scale, CCS is technically feasible and could be further deployed under the right conditions.

“Furthermore, it is clear that market dynamics, including the emergence of low-price natural gas, have been driving U.S. power suppliers away from coal production. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, over the next three years, utilities plan to build only eight new coal-fired generators compared with 91 new gas-fired generators.

I simply must ask: How long will those 91 shiny new natural gas plants be in service? And how much CO2 will they emit? And how much will they serve to lock us into a future of fracking for natural gas and all its attendant horrors once that ongoing demand for that particular fossil fuel is much more deeply entrenched in our infrastructure?

This interplay between coal and natural gas is echoed everywhere, it seems, including this Time Magazine piece, It’s Not Just Obama’s Carbon Rules That Are Killing Coal. It’s Cheap Gas. But again, how much attention is focused on what we’re locking into — higher-than-we-can-afford CO2 emissions from natural gas — not just locking out of our energy and environmental future — even higher CO2 emissions from coal?

To far too great an extent the public policy of the US and many other countries amounts to putting blind faith in the market to deliver not just whatever goods and services are the most profitable for the suppliers, but to deliver the changes we need to avoid things like catastrophic climate change impacts. That’s delusional. After all, it was relying on the market that got us into this staggering mess in the first place. As I’ve said numerous times: The “free” market is exceptionally good at exactly one thing: The short-term allocation of resources in response to price signals. That’s it. Whenever the market provides us with something that serves the public good, it’s because either we forced it to do so via collective action in the form of rules and regulations imposed by government or pressure from organized consumers, or we got lucky. The only way we can get the climate policies we so desperately need is if informed voters and consumers demand them. Right now, the biggest single barrier to putting us on the right path, the one that serves our own best interests and those of our children, begins with awareness. And our media are doing a spectacularly bad job of informing people on this topic.

1 comment to Natural gas, the media’s failures, and you

  • Okay, as always, your blogs are extremely informative, with lots of facts that are well substantiated. The Dr. Brown article is a real eye opener on fracking.

    Ouch! This is ugly. So we really don’t gain anything from NatGas except maybe fuel independence — and a wonderful improvement to our US trade (im)balance!:-(

    The question I have for all of this NatGas is here and now. Half of the NatGas in the US is flared. So when we say that NatGas is 50% cleaner than coal, do we count the other 100% that is flared in the making? Oh, wait, we aren’t saying that NatGas is actually cleaner than coal. It may not be!

    Don’t get me wrong, there’s a safety and a transport issue here with flaring…

    Good news is that much of the flaring is probably methane, right? So it could be worse, there might not be as much flaring. Simply releasing the methane would be a hefty magnitude worse?

    And, of course, the point is that there should be no (short-term) plan to switch to NatGas without some follow-on plan to switch completely to sustainable fuel/power.

    Much like our US energy policy, if there is one, the short-term plan is the only plan, even though it is based on exhaustible resources. That is, the plan is broken as designed.

    Non-sustainability, over time, has a way of giving a wicked whiplash effect. And somehow, everyone with this broken short-term plan feel warm and cuddly about it.

    Double ouch!