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.
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."
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."
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 ..."
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.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit 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.