Methane Leaks Cancel Natural Gas Benefits

A few days ago the New York Times had a generally comforting article by John Schwartz about the natural gas boom and the enthusiasm for it by Obama and his people.  It was filled with pros and cons, but overall completely missed the necessary tone for these matters.  The proper tone should be one of loud alarm.

The article started with the “pros”. Burning natural gas creates half the carbon dioxide than coal does (for the same energy produced).  Because of fracking it’s also cheaper so many electric plants have switched from coal to gas.  The result is that in the U.S. carbon dioxide produced by electric power plants has been cut by about 20% since 2005.

Sounds good, but you can’t just look at one part of process.  To get the natural gas to the power plant you have to mine it and send it over pipelines. That creates a big problem of leakage.  Lots of it is leaking out into the air and adding big time to global warming.  Natural gas is almost entirely methane gas and methane is much worse than carbon dioxide as a climate warmer.  Schwartz writes, “Because of methane’s ability to trap infrared radiation more effectively than CO2, its effect on climate change is 84 times greater on a 20-year basis.” 

The article quotes gas industry people who say it’s no big deal, it’s just a “plumbing problem” and plumbing is “dead simple” and mentions some high tech ways of dealing with it.  On the other hand the article quotes researcher Anthony R. Ingraffea who has highlighted the problem of leakage where the wells are sealed to surrounding rock.  Seals break down over time.  Ingraffea said, “Out of the four or five million wells drilled on earth, nobody knows how many of them are leaking into the atmosphere, or how much they are leaking.”

The scale of the problem of keeping intact seals becomes clearer when it’s realized that most wells are not maintained at all because they’ve been abandoned.  A study posted on the National Academy of Science site states that there are 3 million abandoned oil and gas wells.  After doing tests at 19 abandoned wells in Pennsylvania, the scientists estimated that abandoned wells were probably giving out 4-7% of the state’s man-made methane emissions.

A February article in the Times was much better in tone explaining that the signs about buses running on “clean natural gas” were pretty much BS.  It highlighted the study by Stanford and MIT scientists that had just been published in Science that found that there was “50 percent more methane in the atmosphere than previously estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency.”  It mentioned that there are ways of dealing with leaks, but pointed out that “Currently, there are no federal regulations on methane emissions from oil and gas production.”  State rules can vary widely as shown by how much methane oil wells are allowed to flare into the air.

Methane is really bad news.  It’s true that it doesn’t last as long in the air as carbon dioxide so the 84 times as bad ratio quoted above may be a little misleading.   However, Greenpeace says the IPCC (Interplanetary Panel on Climate Change) estimated that over a 100-year time scale methane is 34 time stronger than CO2.  That’s awful enough.

Worldwide growth in methane in the air slowed in the 1990’s and seemed to hold constant at the start of the 2000’s.  Yet according to a Science  article in January, “ strong growth resumed in 2007.”  A Vice piece that was mostly based on the Science article and an interview with one of its authors says that it’s really not understood where all the methane is coming from.  One idea by study author Euan Nesbit is that warming of the arctic is causing the release of methane.  “When you warm up wetlands in the Arctic, the methane just pours out.”

Lest I be accused of hysteria let me quote just  three sentences from an August article in the Times on a report from the IPCC that had just been released.

“Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts’. ”

“The world may already be nearing a temperature at which the loss of the vast ice sheet covering Greenland would become inevitable”

“The actual melting would then take centuries, but it would be unstoppable and could result in a sea level rise of 23 feet, with additional increases from other sources like melting Antarctic ice, potentially flooding the world’s major cities”

Now is the time to panic.  It’s time to demand Keystone XL be abandoned once and for all, and to mount an emergency “Manhattan Project” to go 100% fossil fuel free.


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