Life After Coal: Spotlight Shifts to Natural Gas Emissions

A natural gas well in Hamilton, Pennsylvania.
A natural gas well in Hamilton, Pennsylvania.

Last spring the U.S. Energy Information Agency predicted that natural gas would outstrip coal for power generation in 2016, for the first time since the dawn of the electric utility era. That’s a significant milepost in the nation’s efforts to reduce global warming emissions from fossil fuels. However, it’s a mixed blessing for the natural gas industry.

Now that natural gas is in the lead for power generation, it’s going to come in for closer scrutiny as a “cleaner” alternative to coal — and the picture ain’t pretty.

More CO2 emissions from natural gas

The Energy Information Agency illustrated the newfound dilemma of the natural gas industry in its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook, issued on August 17.

According to the EIA, first place in the power generation race is not the only prize that natural gas now claims. It also beat out coal for carbon dioxide emissions from power generation:

“Energy-associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from natural gas are expected to surpass those from coal for the first time since 1972. Even though natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal, increases in natural gas consumption and decreases in coal consumption in the past decade have resulted in natural gas-related CO2 emissions surpassing those from coal.”

And the agency isn’t talking in fractions of a percentage point, either. EIA puts the emissions figure for natural gas at 10 percent greater than coal for 2016.

natural gas operations

The methane emissions problem

The EIA report is focused narrowly on carbon emissions from power plants, and that is an area in which natural gas clearly does a better job than coal. (EIA puts the carbon intensity of coal at 82 percent higher than natural gas.)

However, throughout its lifecycle natural gas also accounts for significant methane emissions, another greenhouse gas.

The lack of an effective regulatory mechanism for managing methane emissions at the wellhead is one key source of the problem, for both natural gas and oil drilling operations.

Last spring, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally took steps to address that issue. The agency issued a new regulatory framework, with this comment:

“Methane, the key constituent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) with a global warming potential more than 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. Methane is the second most prevalent GHG emitted in the United States from human activities, and nearly one-third of those emissions comes from oil production and the production, transmission and distribution of natural gas.”

The EPA also cited new evidence that methane emissions from both oil and gas operations are “substantially higher than was previously understood.”

And, the agency noted that methane is not the only air pollutant issuing from oil and gas operations:

“… Emissions of air toxics such as benzene, ethylbenzene, and n-hexane, also come from this industry. Air toxics are pollutants known, or suspected of causing cancer and other serious health effects …”

Then there’s that fracking thing…

Another key problem faced by both natural gas and oil drillers is the mounting pile of evidence about public health and environment impacts from fracking. Short for hydraulic fracturing, this drilling method was formerly considered unconventional. It was mainly practiced in thinly populated areas, where it would be difficult to assemble evidence of systematic impacts.

More recently, fracking has fallen into common use in high-population areas. The disposal of vast quantities of wastewater from fracking operations has also grown apace. All together, that has provided researchers with a much larger data pool.

The result has been one study after the other detailing a range of issues from earthquakes and water pollution to an increase in premature births and asthma risks.

Stay tuned.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Andy Arthur; 2) U.S. EPA

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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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