Just the other day I hopped on a natural gas bus to head to downtown Oakland, enjoying one of the East Bay’s many environmentally-friendly public transit options. But how friendly was that bus to the birds, the bees and the trees? For years, I’ve been told that natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel, making it a better choice for an era when we need to be more conscious than ever about our environmental footprint — rather than chuffing through the streets in diesel buses, I can help the environment by cruising along on a natural-gas powered bus.
The Environmental Protection Agency and other groups have been promoting natural gas for a while, so a new study revealing that natural gas comes with a high hidden cost is quite alarming. The researchers think we might be underselling the environmental costs of natural gas, potentially by as much as 75% — their research indicates that we really need to find out more about the problems they’ve identified with the natural gas system in the United States in order to determine the full scope of the issue.
In a nutshell, they discovered that the natural gas system is extremely leaky. Since natural gas is basically methane, the production, transport and storage of natural gas is a giant contributor to greenhouse gases in the environment, which is bad news. You know how those old diesel buses always seemed to fart their way down the streets of urban environments? Well, it turns out natural gas buses are farting too — it’s just happening where you can’t see it, so you might not be aware it’s happening.
We’ve been relying on outdated information to estimate the number of leaks and amount of methane — a gas about 30 times worse than CO2 for the environment — produced by natural gas processing. When researchers actually went out and measured, what they found was a radically different story, and a cause for big concern. The really significant issue are so-called “superemitters.” As in other industries, researchers suspect that the bulk of leaks and methane emissions in the natural gas system can be traced back to a few violators, which is actually good news, as it means the issue can be corrected by targeting these particular culprits.
Furthermore, the researchers note, it’s still better to burn natural gas than coal. While natural gas isn’t as clean as we thought it was, burning coal to generate energy produces even more environmental pollutants, and thus, transitioning power plants away from coal is a good idea (wind and water, of course, are even better than natural gas). Furthermore, if researchers can identify superemitters and develop methods for containing natural gas leaks more effectively, this fuel can be made much cleaner.
The study shows that even “clean” and “green” things can come with hidden issues behind the scenes, and that it’s critical to use regular verifying research to learn more about supposedly environmentally-friendly industries. In the case of natural gas, a clean-burning fuel could be made a lot cleaner overall with the help of some research to clean up the production process — something we wouldn’t have known if researchers hadn’t been puzzling over suspiciously high methane rates in the environment.
Photo credit: Scott Smith.