The Case Against Further Use of Natural Gas (Methane)

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Recent scientific research indicates that using natural gas as a “bridge fuel” is causing far more harm than good. Peer reviewed scientific studies (links to them below) indicate we should drop natural gas in favor of the immediate adoption of rooftop solar, new electric heat pump home heating and cooling, and “Tier 3” heat pump water heaters (all readily available as attractive investments for homeowners). Using natural gas, as a leading article headlines, is a “bridge to nowhere.” Indeed, it is in all likelihood a fast track to greater ecological destruction.

Within a few years of the rapid expansion of shale gas extraction (using fracking) that started about decade ago, researchers began tracking its true effects on green house gas (GHG) emissions. A 2011 landmark paper authored by Robert W. Horwarth, Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University warned that natural gas extraction was creating far more fugitive emissions than facile estimates by the EPA indicated. Following its publication, other researchers followed suit. To sum up this research, the problem is that if more than 3.2 percent of the natural gas extracted escapes to the atmosphere during development and production, then using natural in your home or at your power plant is worse than burning coal due to its high global warming potential (GWP). In the past few years researchers have shown, using satellite imagery and other reliable measurements, that USA natural gas fields are emitting as much as several times the levels of emissions that they must for natural gas to fulfill its role as a “bridge fuel.” In other words, using natural gas to reduce GHGs has been counterproductive. The EPA has belatedly started to acknowledged that natural gas emissions are greater than previously acknowledged, and this fact featured prominently in the environmental agreement recently reached between POTUS and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau.

At the American Geophysical Union’s 2014 annual meeting in San Francisco, several separate research groups presented evidence that fugitive emissions from USA shale gas fields far exceed EPA estimates. Researchers have pointed out that EPA estimates are industry supplied and are derived from established production facilities. Emissions occurring during exploration and well development, and the consistent seven percent of new wells that suffer leaks have been excluded from the EPA’s calculations.

Another major flaw in the oil and gas influenced EPA’s conclusions arises from the presumed global warming potential of the leaking natural gas. Natural gas released as methane into the atmosphere has a warming potential around 100 times greater than an equal amount of CO2. Natural gas only remains in the atmosphere for around 12 years or so, but oil and gas industry supported studies attribute its GWP effect over a hundred year period. This statistically dilutes natural gas’s large negative impact during the next decade or two, shifting it to a much longer time frame. The problem is that we face the immediate danger of reaching a critical tipping point in the fight against green house gases. The upshot is that studies supporting the use of natural gas have made erroneous and very dangerous assumptions about its short term effects.

Investing in home rooftop solar, mini-split heat pump heating and cooling, new Tier 3 heat pump water heaters, and an EV drastically reduces household carbon footprints and returns 10 percent or more per year to homeowners as an investment. Given this financially attractive return, it’s hard to imagine why households don’t get rid of the natural gas furnaces and appliances and get on with the conversion to becoming zero net carbon with clean rooftop solar and other renewable energy.

Related scientific articles can be downloaded here:

Methane_and_GHG_from_shale_Howarth

Alverez et al 2012

Brandt et al 2014 methane leaks

Howarth_2014_ESE_methane_emissions

Methane_and_GHG_from_shale_Howarth

Schneising et al on methane remote sensing

By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4025872

By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4025872

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