Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Natural gas facility

(Christian Lagerek /Shutterstock)

Is Natural Gas Just as Polluting as Coal?

• May 07, 2012 • 10:38 AM

(Christian Lagerek /Shutterstock)

Researchers find that harmful methane leaks into the air at twice the amounts estimated by the EPA.

The recent boom in U.S. natural gas production has been hailed as the cure to all America’s ills. Gas, its boosters say, can reduce household heating expenses, enhance energy security, create jobs, and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

That last part is crucial to winning over environmentalists. “Over its full cycle of production, distribution, and use, natural gas emits just over half as many greenhouse gas emissions as coal for equivalent energy output,” the green group Worldwatch Institute reported last August. But all of that may amount to a lot of hot air if researchers from Cornell University and the Environmental Defense Fund are right. Thanks to the little-known problem of methane leakage, in the short term at least, natural gas may be worse for the climate than other fossil fuels.

Natural gas is mostly methane, which is itself a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. And it leaks into the air at every point of the process of getting and using the fuel. The technology exists to capture the leaking gas at hydraulic fracturing – aka fracking – sites, but industry officials say it’s not worth the cost. With the price of natural gas having dropped 90 percent since 2005, that attitude is not likely to change soon.

Ramon Alvarez, a physical chemist who works at the Environmental Defense Fund, co-authored a study, published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that compares the impacts of natural gas with gasoline, diesel, and coal on the climate. His conclusion: “The amount of methane released can affect whether or not natural gas is a better fuel for the climate than other fuels.”

In February, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analyzed air samples from a region of Colorado where a lot of gas is being extracted through fracking. They found the air contained twice as much methane as the EPA had estimated there would be, suggesting a lot more methane than previously thought was leaking during extraction.

NOAA’s findings lent support to an earlier study, by Cornell researchers Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea, who found natural gas to be no cleaner than coal when you factor in methane leakage. But that study was heavily criticized by the gas industry and other Cornell researchers, who contended the estimates of methane leakage were too high. The EPA stepped into the debate in April when it issued air pollution standards that will force producers to reduce methane leakage caused by fracking by 25 percent.

Figuring out the net effect on climate change of natural gas, and how that compares to other fuel sources, is complicated. Methane is more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas most prevalent in the burning of coal and liquid transport fuels. But the methane doesn’t persist in the atmosphere as long.

That means, according to Alvarez, the methane emitted from powering a fleet of natural gas driven vehicles, for example, only presents a climate benefit over a gasoline-powered fleet after about 40 years. By his calculations, methane leakage would have to be cut by at least twice as much as the new EPA mandate for natural gas to become less harmful to the climate than gas or diesel in the short term. Compared to coal, though, he found climate benefits are immediate and increase over time.

Those figures, however, are based on the EPA’s official estimate that 2.4 percent of natural gas leaks out during production. When Alvarez and his co-authors ran their model using the median estimate from the Cornell study, 7 percent, natural gas for vehicle transport offers no benefits for at least 100 years. Compared to coal, natural gas would take 30 to 60 years to offer a benefit.

All of that may still seem to give natural gas the advantage. Not so, says James E. Hansen, the physicist who heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is one of the earliest and most credible authorities to sound the alarm over global warming.

“If we reduce carbon dioxide emissions six percent a year starting in 2015,” he says, “we’ll level out at 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in about 2100.” Hansen and others believe 350 parts per million is the maximum amount of carbon dioxide the atmosphere can sustain for long periods without warming a disastrous 2º Celsius. The last time the planet was that warm—three million years ago—primates left Europe, alligators moved in, and the ocean was 25 meters above current levels–which would put Calcutta, Miami, and much of New York and Tokyo under water.

But even if we start bringing carbon dioxide levels down in the coming years, we may find ourselves in even worse shape if we accomplish it by switching wholesale to natural gas and releasing huge amounts of methane in the process. In the fight against climate change, Hansen maintains, time is one thing we don’t have.

Paul Tullis
Paul Tullis has been writing and editing features for award-winning magazines off and on since 1993. He’s also worked as a screenwriter and as a producer of daily news, and he’s appeared as a news commentator on radio and cable news. He blogs on issues of policy and politics at trueslant.com/paultullis and 3rdworldamerica.net. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, who is a policy analyst, and two daughters.

More From Paul Tullis

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.