In the on going debate over how the U.S. should solve it’s energy issues, natural gas is starting to look more and more like a front runner to ease our reliance on foreign oil and reduce global warming, but two new studies show that the process of obtaining natural gas may actually be worse for the environment.
One study led by Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, states that huge amounts of planet warming methane gas are escaping into the atmosphere when natural gas is collected. Professor Howarth said that “The old dogma of natural gas being better than coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions gets stated over and over without qualification,” and “I don’t think this is the end of the story, I think this is just the beginning of the story, and before governments and the industry push ahead on gas development, at the very least we ought to do a better job of making measurements.” The natural gas industry on the other hand says that they’ve actually decreased the amount of escaping methane due to new technologies and upgraded pipe fittings. Howarth’s study also looks at findings by The Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA that showed that when mixed with certain aerosol particles methane’s greenhouse impact is strengthened.
The Obama administration has made natural gas a part of it’s overall energy strategy. White House spokesman, Clark Stevens said that the administration’s energy priorities were not about choosing one energy source, but about diversifying the nation’s energy usage. “This process will continue to be based on the best science available to ensure our energy sources, including our nation’s natural gas reserves, are developed safely and responsibly,” said Mr. Stevens.
Geoscientist David Hughes of the Post Carbon Institute, is releasing a study in May that examines natural gas as a substitute for coal in electricity generation and oil in transportation. According to Mr. Hughes use of natural gas in both cases were practical impossibilities.
“I think it’s going to be very challenging, to put it mildly, to ramp up shale gas production by fourfold, which is the federal government’s projection for 2035,” Mr. Hughes said. “I’m not saying it can’t be done, but if it was done, the amount of drilling you’re looking at to make that happen is staggering.” Mr. Hughes also used some of the data from Mr. Howarth’s study to conclude that replacing coal with natural gas for base load electricity production will most likely make greenhouse gas emissions worse.
David Hawkins, the director of climate programs with the Natural Resources Defense Council says that that studies like Mr. Howarth’s are important, but relied on too slim a data set to be considered final. “This is a huge and growing industry, and we just don’t have the information we need to make sure that this resource is being developed as cleanly as it can be,” Mr. Hawkins said. He also said regulators could push drillers to capture more of the lost methane, but that it is often more economical for the industry to just let it escape.