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Just How Clean is Natural Gas?

Just How Clean is Natural Gas?

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We’ve been relying on outdated information to estimate the number of leaks and amount of methane — a gas about 30 times worse than CO2 for the environment — produced by natural gas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.

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Photo credit: Scott Smith.

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53 comments

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3:45PM PST on Feb 23, 2014

I wish there was some source of power source that wasn't a lesser of the alternatives. My house is part gas and part electric. I used to think gas was cleaner but with all the fracking issues I'm thinking not so much. Wind power can apparently have a detrimental effect on the migratory patterns of birds. Plus they are inadvertently killed by the blades. Not sure why they can't develop some sort of cover for them that would let them operate but keep birds and other small animals away. I recently had solar panels put on my home. (I didn't have to pay for the panels outright just a small monthly fee.) But waiting to hear the down side to them.
:(

3:57PM PST on Feb 22, 2014

Natural gas is clean in the sense that it does not contain heavy metals and other contaminants found in coal and oil. Methane itself is a minor atmospheric gas, but it is the fuel, not the byproduct of burning the fuel. Thus the producers have an incentive to avoid leaks. Every cubic foot of gas leaked is lost revenue.

10:13AM PST on Feb 22, 2014

Natural gas is not clean.

9:28AM PST on Feb 22, 2014

William n.,
Natural gas is a relatively pure substance when extracted. Typically, 95% is methane, and 3-4% other alkanes. There is no mercury, sulfur, or other toxic gases. There can be up to 1% CO2 and NOx. Compare this to the impurities in other raw fuels.

1:54PM PST on Feb 21, 2014

Natural gas fracking causes earthquakes and poisons our water, when undisclosed poisonous chemicals are pumped into the ground. Although cleaner than coal, natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and like oil, should be left in the ground. Solar and wind power are the best option, and should replace dirty natural gas, and other fossil fuels.

12:45PM PST on Feb 21, 2014

if you get it from fracking or from territories where tribal people are chased, that's not green, but also not fair at all!

9:12AM PST on Feb 21, 2014

Something else to consider. Natural gas whether it is conventional or fracked is an impure substance when it comes out of the ground. That is why it has to be processed to remove significant gaseous impurities. How much CO2 and other gasses (SOX NOX Hg etc) are also being drawn out from these wells and simply being vented to the atmosphere either at the well head or more likely during the refining process??? No one seems to know the answer to this basic question and it might be a major variable from one well or from one field to another. I would be that we are adding far more CO2 to the atmosphere through a fracking process than simply what we get from buring the final product. A full accounting of CO2 to the atmosphere shuold include extraneous CO2 vented during the extraction and production process.

10:16PM PST on Feb 20, 2014

Like Tierney, I ask "what about fracking"? Go wind and solar!

7:43PM PST on Feb 20, 2014

It has to be cleaner than the "natural gas" produced within the confines of our house---quite often a subject of amusement for me and eye-rolling for the missus. Oh well.

4:29PM PST on Feb 20, 2014

Wow! Free energy! How can I get some? My heating bills this winter are murder.

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