“Beat Air Pollution” is the theme of United Nations World Environment Day this year. That covers a lot of ground, from wood-fueled household cookstoves to massive coal power plants. In his Environment Day message, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres prevailed upon governments to “tax pollution; end fossil fuel subsidies; and stop building new coal plants” in recognition of World Environment Day.
Secretary-General Guterres also highlighted diesel engines and the burning of trash as major sources of air pollution.
So, what is missing from this picture? Freedom gas!
“Freedom gas” is the newly minted nom de guerre for fossil fuel-based natural gas, and last week it blew up all over the media. The news cycle has since moved on, but here’s a quick review.
Apparently freedom gas emerged during a speech in Brussels on May 2, in which U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry drew attention to Europe’s reliance on natural gas from Russia.
Russia’s dominant role in the European gas market has long, deep roots. However, things spiraled out of control when Perry used the somewhat hyperbolic phrase “delivering a form of freedom” to describe the benefits of increasing U.S. gas exports to Europe.
After the speech, a EURACTIV reporter convinced Perry to endorse the phrase “freedom gas,” and the damage was done.
That was just the beginning. Apparently taking Perry at his word, the Energy Department deployed “freedom gas” and “molecules of U.S. freedom” in a May 28 press release, announcing a new project that will increase liquid natural gas exports from a terminal in Texas.
That caught the eye of the American news media, and news of freedom gas spread swiftly across the internet.
Adding to the hilarity, the name of the LNG terminal is Freeport.
All kidding aside, perhaps it’s just as well that fossil natural gas has come under the media spotlight, just in time for World Environment Day.
Evidence is mounting that methane emissions related to natural gas operations are a major contributor to global greenhouse gasses. Nevertheless, natural gas still continues to enjoy a public reputation as a less polluting alternative to coal power, partly thanks to public relations campaigns undertaken by natural gas stakeholders.
Still, emerging evidence of the environmental impacts of natural gas strongly suggests that business leaders seeking “cleaner” energy are better served by engaging with wind, solar and other renewables — in other words, by switching to electricity.
The impacts of natural gas are local in scope as well as global. Natural gas does emit less pollution when burned, but that is cold comfort for communities across the U.S. that suffer local impacts from drilling, transportation, storage, and distribution operations.
The short list currently includes evidence of water contamination, water shortage risks, and local air pollution issues related to methane leakage and truck traffic, as well as low birth weight, asthma, and other direct public health impacts.
Natural gas operations can also depress property values for homeowners using well water, and can harm other existing businesses, such as tourism and agriculture.
The impact of natural gas on indoor air quality in residential buildings is another area of harm.
In 2014, the National Institutes for Health observed that “Natural gas cooking appliances, which are used by a third of U.S. households, can contribute to poor indoor air quality, especially when used without an exhaust hood.”
Specifically, NIH cited a study modeling nitrogen dioxide (NO), carbon monoxide (CO), and formaldehyde emissions, “each of which can exacerbate various respiratory and other health ailments.” The conclusions were significant for NO and CO:
"Gas burners were estimated to add 25–33 percent to the week-averaged indoor NO2 concentrations during summer and 35–39 percent in winter…For CO, gas stoves were estimated to contribute 30 percent and 21 percent to the indoor air concentration in summer and winter, respectively.”
Indoor impacts have received little scrutiny but a new building electrification campaign undertaken by the environmental organization Rocky Mountain Institute is beginning to change that.
While drawing attention to the health impacts of gas appliances, RMI also makes the case that all-electric buildings save money for homeowners in the long run, both in new construction and in retrofits.
The electrification movement appears to have legs, as the falling cost of wind and solar continue to push both coal and natural gas out of the power generation sector.
Electrification also creates opportunities for savings in the construction industry, by eliminating costs related to new gas lines and permits.
The electrification case for businesses and industry is more complicated than for residential properties, though the bottom-line benefits are beginning to emerge.
Last year the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory looked at the economics of building electrification across all sectors, and toted up a long list of advantages:
“Promising energy system benefits of electrification include greater flexibility for managing electric loads, opportunities to provide additional ancillary services1to the grid, and valuable synergies with electric vehicles, demand response, and distributed generation and energy storage.”
That’s not all:
“In addition, electrification may foster economic development, boost balance of trade, improve air quality, reduce fuel price risks, reduce consumers’ costs in some applications, and improve product quality in some industrial processes and quality of some energy services in buildings.”
Berkeley Lab points out that some applications — space heaters with electric heat pumps, for example — are already economically competitive in many buildings.
On this World Environment Day, natural gas users, both commercial and residential, can make a real difference by taking a good, hard look at the impacts of “freedom gas” on global warming and local air pollution and weighing the bottom-line benefits of electrification.
Image credit: Pixabay
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.