A new peer-reviewed article to appear in Environmental Research Letters next week adds to the accumulation of studies demonstrating why our love affair with natural gas needs to be ended soon. (The summary of the study can be read below.)
For years, natural gas – composed mostly of methane – has been touted as a transition fuel to a new world of clean and sustainable energy, a way to get rid of coal without waiting for renewables (and many would add nuclear ) to meet all of our electricity needs. . It’s worked in the US to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% since 2005, with coal’s share of US power generation falling to less than 20% last year. . Indeed, burning methane releases on average about half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal.
But there is a big problem. Over 20 years, unburned Methane has a global warming potential 84 times that of the carbon dioxide emitted by burning coal. Methane leaves the atmosphere much faster than carbon dioxide, but even after a century it has 24 times the global warming potential of CO2. Methane concentrations in the atmosphere today are about 170% higher than in pre-industrial and booming times. Scientists say methane emissions are responsible for about 30% of the warming observed so far in the industrial age. About 40% of methane comes from natural sources and about 60% results from human activities, i.e. anthropogenic emissions.
Natural sources include melting permafrost, which could theoretically release titanic amounts of methane as the Arctic continues to warm four times faster than the planet’s average. But scientists have different views on the severity of climate impact from melting permafrost. The human sources are agriculture, oil well dumps and leaks, and… natural gas fracking operations.
A study found that pipelines carrying fractured gas in the Permian Basin were leaking at least 14 times more methane than previously thought.
As we have seen in various studies over the past few years, far more is leaking in the extraction and transportation processes than was told to government controllers by the industries doing the extraction. Last year, a study find that pipelines carrying fractured gas in Texas’ Permian Basin oil fields were leaking at least 14 times more methane than previously recorded. Surprise! Another study in 2022 found that New Mexico Methane Leaks Far Exceed Current Estimates. And there was this report on the prodigious leaks from the Gulf of Mexico.
Hiroko Tabuchi at the New York Times reports about the latest study:
It only takes 0.2% of gas leakage for natural gas to be as big a driver of climate change as coal, according to the study. That’s a tiny margin of error for a gas known to leak from well sites, processing plants and the pipes that carry it to power plants or homes and kitchens.
The bottom line: If gas leaks, even a little bit, “it’s as bad as coal,” said Deborah Gordon, senior researcher and environmental policy expert at Brown University and the Rocky Mountain Institute, a research organization. non-profit research focused on clean energy. . “It cannot be considered a good bridge or a substitute.” (…)
The findings raise tough questions about how much extra money the world’s nations would need to invest in gas infrastructure to stave off the worst of global warming. The $370 The Cut Inflation Act passed by the United States Congress last year, designed to move the country away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, includes credits that would apply to certain forms of natural gas.
Robert Howarth, a leading Earth systems scientist who who warned against methane leaks for more than 10 years, but did not participate in this study, researchers said in an email to The Times: “Their conclusion is to underscore once again that natural gas is not can -be no better at all for the climate than is coal, especially when you look at it from a warming perspective over the next 20 years or so, which is of course a critical time “for meeting climate goals.” I hope that the political world and the political leaders of the world will pay attention to this, because I fear that too many people remain too obsessed with simply reducing the use of coal, even if it leads to an increase in gas consumption . What the world demands is to move away from all fossil fuels as soon as possible, towards a 100% renewable energy future. »
Meanwhile, C-SPAN this week was full of Republican amateur climatologists behaving at congressional environmental hearings as if their opinions were equivalent to those of scientists with, say, two decades of research on Greenland ice cores. The idea of ditching natural gas to fight climate change is something these politicians view as anti-American heresy, especially when it comes to their wallets and those of their bosses.
Reality, as Howarth said in a 2019 interview with Blaine Friedlander at the Cornell Chronicle: “Reducing methane now can provide an instant way to slow global warming and meet the United Nations goal of keeping the planet well below an average rise of 2 degrees Celsius. (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This recent increase in methane is massive. It is globally significant. It has contributed to some of the increase in global warming that we have seen and shale gas is a major contributor. If we can stop dumping methane into the atmosphere, it will dissipate. It goes away pretty quickly, compared to carbon dioxide. This is the handy fruit to slow down global warming.
More … than 130 nations have pledged to reduce their methane production. China and the United States have agreed to work together to reduce their methane emissions and this agreement still seems to be working despite the various frictions between the two nations. The Inflation Reduction Act relevant provisions to reduce methane emissions. United States also adopted a levy on methane as a deterrent to companies that would otherwise ignore leaks. We’ll see how well this pay-to-pollute approach works compared to a cease and desist letter.
THE Global Methane Tracker found that in 2022, the global energy industry was responsible for emitting 135 million tonnes of methane into the atmosphere, slightly below the record level recorded in 2019. Today, the sector Global energy accounts for about 40% of total methane emissions attributable to human activity, second only to agriculture.
If we were to actually reduce man-made methane emissions by 30% globally in this decade from 2020 levels, which is the timeframe of the Global Methane Commitment, it would at least avoid 0.2°C (0.36F) of global warming in 2050. But how likely is that without a serious policy shift?
Our leaders must remember that the key word to ending the burning of fossil fuels is as soon as possible. Again we are currently building new natural gas infrastructure with a lifespan of 50 years, with tax dollars helping to pay the bill. New liquefied natural gas terminals are under construction and others are proposed or pending approval. Oil and gas drilling companies are still getting leases to carry out their operations on public lands, including in sensitive ocean waters that still bear the scars of their past carelessness. Around the world, the hunt for new oil and gas deposits has not slowed down.
It’s the wrong way.
If we have any hope of mitigating some of the detrimental impacts on climate and biodiversity that humans have collectively caused with the planet-altering emissions of modern civilization, the green transformation must be accelerated. Tick, tick, tick.
SUMMARY OF THE METHANE LEAK STUDY
The net climate impact of gas and coal life cycle emissions is highly dependent on methane leakage. Every molecule of methane that leaks changes the climate advantage because methane warms the planet much more than CO2 over its decade-long lifespan. We find that global gas systems that leak more than 4.7% of their methane (over a 20-year period) or 7.6% (over a 100-year period) are on par with carbon cycle emissions. Coal mine life leaking methane. The net climate impact of coal is also influenced by SO2 emissions, which react to form sulfate aerosols that mask warming. We run scenarios that combine varying methane leakage rates from coal and gas with low to high SO2 emissions depending on the sulfur content of the coal, the efficiency of the flue gas scrubber and the global warming potentials of sulfate aerosols. Methane and SO2 co-emitted with CO2 change the emissions parity between gas and coal. We estimate that a gas system leakage rate as low as 0.2% is comparable to that of coal, assuming 1.5% sulfur coal is scrubbed at 90% efficiency without coal mine methane when considering the climatic effects over a period of 20 years. Recent aerial measurement surveys of oil and gas production basins in the United States have found natural gas leak rates ranging from 0.65% to 66.2%, with similar leak rates detected around the world. entire. These many super-emitting gas systems detected globally underscore the need to accelerate methane emissions detection, accounting and management practices to certify that gas assets are less emissions intensive than coal.