Researchers Find Holes in Climate Argument for Natural Gas
Methane leaks make natural gas a poor choice for vehicle fuel but still better than coal for power generation over a 100-year period.A new study suggests federal regulators have grossly underestimated the climate impact of natural gas.
The team of researchers, whose, analyzed 20 years’ worth of studies measuring actual emissions from and near natural gas facilities. The fuel is mostly methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that has a 20-year global warming potential (GWP) 85 times that of CO2 and a 100-year GWP 30 times that of CO2.
Standard estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of overall U.S. methane emissions are off by about 50%, according to lead researcher Adam Brandt, Ph.D., assistant professor at Stanford University. And the agency’s estimates of the natural gas industry’s emissions are based on assumptions about 1990s technology and infrastructure, leading the research team to suggest leakage rates up to 10% higher than EPA’s estimates from production and processing.
Substituting these higher leakage rates in life-cycle assessments comparing different fuels, the authors suggest that, from a climate perspective, diesel is a better vehicle fuel than natural gas. But over a 100-year period, natural gas likely still wins out as a substitute for coal in power plants.Brandt sees a silver lining to the news of the industry’s excess emissions: because the excess comes primarily from unintentional leaks from old wells, corroded pipes, and faulty storage tanks, most of these emissions could be controlled. Since leaks cost money, “hopefully the technology can get cheap enough for the industry to do this on its own,” Brandt said in .
However, the paper concludes, “If natural gas is to be a ‘bridge’ to a more sustainable energy future, it is a bridge that must be traversed carefully: diligence will be required to ensure that leakage rates are low enough to achieve sustainability goals.”
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Published March 3, 2014