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The Myth of ‘Clean’ Natural Gas

Policy Analysis
Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Electric utilities often tout natural gas as a clean fuel – an essential weapon in the fight against global warming. Even if they admit the need to replace fossil fuels with solar and wind power eventually, they insist that natural gas is a bridge to the renewable energy future.

This notion is literally full of hot air. The production, transportation and burning of natural gas are not only major contributors to climate change, they are also a profound threat to human health.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, or EIA, carbon emissions from natural gas plants surpassed those from coal plants several years ago. Even though a near-record number of U.S. coal plants shut down last year, an analysis by the Rhodium Group found carbon dioxide pollution increased by more than 3 percent in 2018, after going down for three years in a row.

Rhodium said that although a growing economy, cold winter and hot summer drove increased energy use, the increase in electricity generated by natural gas was also a factor in rising carbon emissions. One reason is that in 2017 the U.S. added twice as much natural gas capacity as new solar and wind power, despite the fact that renewables are now as cheap or cheaper than natural gas. The EIA says added wind and solar capacity will exceed new natural gas facilities this year, but those newly built gas plants will keep pumping out carbon pollution for decades.

And carbon’s not the only way natural gas makes global warming worse. The Rhodium Group only counted pollution from power plants and energy use in buildings and transportation. What’s missing is natural gas infrastructure: wells, pipelines and production facilities. All are big emitters of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Over a 20-year period, methane emissions are estimated to be more than 80 times more powerful than carbon in driving climate change.

The U.S. has three million miles of natural gas pipelines and 1.3 million natural gas facilities, including wells, compressor stations and processing plants.

A 2018 study led by the Environmental Defense Fund found that methane leaks from natural gas and oil infrastructure are probably 60 times greater than the Environmental Protection Agency estimates. The study attributed the difference to the EPA’s failure to account for equipment malfunctions in wells, pipelines and processing and facilities. 

In addition to natural gas being a climate change disaster, natural gas production depends heavily on hydraulic fracturing, which uses and releases large quantities of hazardous chemicals, often in close proximity to homes and schools. In a recent study, health professionals concluded that not only do existing fracking regulations fail to protect Americans from an increased risk of cancer, asthma and birth defects, but there is also no evidence that fracking can ever be done without threatening public health.

Most Americans – at least those who don't buy into the Trump administration's doomed efforts to revive the coal industry – have seen through the myth of so-called clean coal. Now the energy industry, including electric utilities, must stop pushing the myth of clean natural gas. The sooner the nation moves from energy generated by fossil fuels to power from the sun and wind, the better for the planet and for Americans’ health.

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