In his 2014 State of the Union Address President Obama stated of coal seam gas: “if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.” Many arguments against fracking aside (purely due to lack of space, I assure you), scientists are demonstrating that the U.S.’s growing reliance on gas-run power stations could actually be releasing more greenhouse gases than burning coal due to the amount of methane leaked during the extraction process. They also argue that by switching to gas for the next 100 years or so, we are delaying investment in the renewable energy sources that we will ultimately have to rely on when fossil fuels are depleted.


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When you burn natural gas, it releases half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal, which is why it is being looked upon so favorably as a “bridging fuel.” But natural gas is predominantly methane, which is a far more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere. Cornell University biogeochemist Robert Howarth has been working to determine how much methane escapes during the fracking process and the results range between 3.6 percent and 7.9 percent, depending on the well. With methane now believed to trap about 86 percent as much heat as carbon dioxide, the increased use of gas to produce electricity could well produce a spike in greenhouse gases, not reduce them. In an April 2014 review of his data, Howarth concluded that up to five percent of the methane extracted leaks before the gas reaches the burning stage, which makes natural gas worse than burning coal when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Related: Updated Cornell Study Shows Fracking Causes More Global Warming Than Coal

Studies aimed at determining why so much methane leaks have pinpointed many factors, including the gas escaping through the holes that naturally appear in the concrete walls of the wells when the concrete dries and shrinks. Gas is kind of like that. The Environmental Defense Fund and Howarth believe that with tighter regulation of the industry, methane leakage could be reduced by 40 to 50 percent. Then using natural gas to produce electricity rather than coal “might result in a very modest reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions,” Howarth told Mother Jones in a lengthy examination of this subject. The real trouble is, though, that by focusing on and investing in infrastructure to support the use of gas, attention is being diverted away from the long-term solutions – renewable energy sources.

Renewables such as wind and solar power are the very things gas is supposed to be the bridge towards. And as EDF president Fred Krupp points out, “We talk a lot how been there’s a 99 percent drop in the price of solar panels over the last 40 years. But the really remarkable thing is that 75 percent of that has come since 2008.” Renewables are getting cheaper and more efficient, and if some of the effort that was being invested in the temporary solution that is gas were put towards renewables, it’s likely the rate of improvement would be even faster and we’d reach the true alternative to coal sooner.

+ Cornell University

Via Mother Jones

Photos by Energy.gov via Wikimedia Commons, and Simon Fraser University vis Flickr