Natural Gas May Be Easier On Climate Than Coal, Despite Methane Leaks
From the standpoint of global warming, burning natural gas can be better than burning coal, a study published this week suggests.
This is a contentious issue among people who are opposed to the natural gas drilling practice known as fracking. That technique involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into wells to release far more gas than conventional drilling can. Opponents of fracking have been concerned not only about local environmental issues, but also about the potential for methane leaks to make global warming worse.
Even though natural gas burns much cleaner than coal, the main constituent, methane, also leaks into the atmosphere during production. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, so those leaks could potentially wipe out the climate benefits of natural gas.
And fracking technology took off before anyone really understood how much natural gas leaks out in the process.
“We wanted to go out and collect some of the first data on some of the new types of operations underway in natural gas production and what the methane emissions are,” says David Allen, an engineering professor at the University of Texas in Austin.
Allen got funding from the Environmental Defense Fund, as well as support from nine major companies that volunteered to participate in the study. His conclusion: Currently the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency greatly overestimates methane emissions from a new well that is being prepared to produce gas for the first time. But he found that the EPA also greatly underestimates emissions from wells that are already in production. And when you add the whole thing up, it’s basically a wash, Allen says.
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