By Jonathan Lamson
Perhaps all Democrats in power agree on many of the basics of climate change, lining up with the scientific consensus. However, on the issue of natural gas, there is far from a party-wide consensus. To many, natural gas is a cheap fossil fuel that has helped cut greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a necessary “bridge fuel” away from coal, a claim which many environmentalists dispute.
As natural gas accounts for approximately 35% of U.S. electricity, and has been growing since the Obama administration, this issue deserves a deeper look. While burning natural gas does emit less CO2 than fossil fuels such as coal or crude oil, this only tells half the story. Methane, the main component in natural gas (pre-combustion), also leaks into the atmosphere in large quantities. This is a major issue because methane is around 86 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2 (over a 20-year period).
It is difficult to assess exactly how much methane is being emitted from natural gas, as leaks occur from its initial fracking to the point of its combustion. Rare, but extremely large leaks are some of the greatest contributors, further increasing the difficulty of estimating the overall rate of methane leaked into the atmosphere. A single natural gas storage facility at Aliso Canyon in California leaked approximately 97,100 tons of methane into the atmosphere in late 2015.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that approximately 1.4% of all methane from natural gas production is leaked into the atmosphere. However, there is a body of scientific literature that indicates that this is a serious underestimate. In one of the largest studies ever on the subject, scientists enlisted by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) found that 2.3% of methane produced as natural gas gets leaked into the atmosphere.
Given that it only takes around 3% of methane leaked to surpass emissions from coal, this indicates that the methane leaks that accompany natural gas at the very least offset the vast majority of reductions in CO2 emissions. Furthermore, Rob Jackson, a decorated Stanford Environmental Science professor who studies methane emissions, believes that this study likely underestimates the actual amount leaked, due to unmeasured leaks at the time of combustion.
Robert Howarth, a Cornell professor, published a peer reviewed paper in 2015 that estimated leak rates to be approximately 12% when looking at “the full life cycle from well to delivery to consumers,” concluding that “the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas is significantly larger than that of conventional natural gas, coal, and oil.” As Middlebury professor and acclaimed environmental author Bill McKibben wrote in 2018, “It’s as if we proudly announced that we kicked our Oxycontin habit by taking up heroin instead.”
Greenhouse gas emissions, potentially even worse than coal, are hardly the only public health and safety issue with natural gas. Fracking for natural gas can contaminate groundwater, cause earthquakes, increase local air pollution, and produce large amounts of radioactive brine, a waste product that is often injected back into wells (but only after coming in contact with unaware oil field workers, something that has been the subject of numerous lawsuits).
Perhaps the toughest part of the issue of natural gas is that there are far too many villains, and so few heroes. U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle have contributed to its harmful spread, and one of the most responsible parties for the rise of natural gas is a former president that countless young people look up to and admire. In a 2012 presidential debate, Barack Obama stated that “natural gas isn’t just appearing magically; we’re encouraging it and working with the industry.” As president, Obama supervised the highest natural gas production levels in U.S. history (only now surpassed by the Trump Administration), allowing the country to become the largest natural gas producer in the world.
Certain 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have also continued the myth of the “bridge fuel.” In his 2017 book, “Climate of Hope”, Michael Bloomberg stated “If we’re going to win the war on coal, we need to have natural gas in our arsenal,” while Amy Klobuchar told viewers of the September CNN Climate Forum that she views natural gas as a “ transitional fuel.” Finally, as if trying to impersonate the villain of an Edward Abbey novel, Colorado Democratic Senate candidate John Hickenlooper bragged about literally drinking fracking fluid as he argued against federal fracking regulations to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 2013.
However, there is perhaps some hope. Many of the more progressive candidates have come out in favor of banning fracking, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Tom Steyer. The logistics of actually executing such a maneuver are far more than this article can cover, but the most important thing is that we stop believing this industry falsehood that natural gas can be useful in combating climate change. And given the already competitive and falling costs of renewables, any sort of “transition fuel” is altogether unnecessary.