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Report: Methane Leakage at Natural Gas Plants Much Higher Than Previously Thought

By Nithin Coca

While much of the focus in the climate space centers on carbon dioxide emissions, a new study finds that methane – a more potent greenhouse gas – also deserves attention.

The natural gas boom – driven by fracking – is one reason that coal, one of the world's dirtiest fuel sources, has collapsed globally. The rapid fall in wind and solar energy prices didn't help, either.

For many, the decline of coal is a positive development due to the far lower CO2 emissions of gas-burning plants. But critics say that when other environmental concerns are taken into account, natural gas is revealed as nothing more than a short-term bridge fuel, if that.

One of those concerns is methane leakage. Methane – which itself is a form of natural gas - can easily dissolve into the atmosphere if not properly contained. And that's a problem.

"Methane is a 34 times more potent greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide," Paul Shepson, a professor of analytical and atmospheric chemistry at Purdue University, said in a press statement. "It's a better fuel all around as long as you don't spill it. But it doesn't take much methane leakage to ruin your whole day if you care about climate change."

While many had concerns about methane leakage, it was hard to measure until recently. Part of this was intentional: The natural gas industry, which has been trying to paint itself as “green,” limited the amount of data it released about methane. We knew leakage was a problem at fracking sites. Now, a study from Purdue sheds a light on just how much methane escapes into the atmosphere from gas-fired power plants.

What Shepson and his colleagues found is worrying: They reported methane leakage at rates significantly higher than previously reported – 11 to 90 times higher at refineries, and up to 120 times higher at power plants. But there is some good news: This number can be reduced relatively easily.

“The good news here is that you can take a specialized infrared camera around the plant to find the leaks and then patch the them with a wad of bubblegum,” Shepson explained. “I'm joking about that, of course, but the point is that it's a relatively easy thing to fix.”

Which begs the question: If it is so easy, and natural gas is so “green,” why is there so much leakage happening?

Natural gas, despite its marketing, is also a fossil fuel, one many say should be used in very limited, controlled settings. Fracking, a drilling process now used to extract much of America's natural gas, isn't worth the huge environmental costs.

Moreover, existing plants need to stop leakage quickly. And the energy industry as a whole must pave the way toward greater adoption of renewables to replace all fossil fuels, including natural gas. Because – surprise – there's no methane leakage with a wind turbine or solar panel. Just pure, clean, renewable energy.

Image credit: Bonsker via Geograph

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Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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