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Methane emissions – latest non-problem for natural gas

Methane emissions have been identified by anti-fracking activists as an argument of last resort to stop everything from more production of natural gas to the construction of gas pipelines in New England. Now that argument, like others before it about the safety of fracking, needs to be retired.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just rolled out regulations to cut methane emissions from new oil and natural gas wells. While activists greatly exaggerated the methane problem to begin with, these new rules should put any lingering concerns to bed.

{mosads}Emissions of methane, the major component of natural gas, have already been falling. Since 2005, methane emissions from fracked oil and natural gas wells have fallen 79 percent, even as production has surged. Also, in the past 30 years natural gas pipeline leaks have been reduced by 94 percent.

Economic and energy security benefits aside, our abundant supply of natural gas is doing more to help reduce U.S. carbon emissions than any other energy source, including renewables. In fact, despite billions of dollars in taxpayer support and renewable energy mandates, wind and solar power still generate less than seven percent of America’s electricity.

The shale gas revolution, made possible by the innovative combination of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling, has systematically reshaped our electricity generating mix. With access to a vast and affordable supply of natural gas, utilities are making a rapid shift away from coal. Greater use of natural gas in place of coal to generate electricity has almost singlehandedly cut U.S. carbon emissions to their lowest level in 20 years.

Here’s why the shift from coal to gas matters so much: when used to generate electricity in place of coal, natural gas produces just half the carbon emissions and a small fraction of the particulate emissions that lead to smog. And making the switch from coal to gas isn’t a very heavy lift. Utilities are able to convert existing coal plants to burn natural gas, or they are closing older coal plants and ramping up the use of once under-utilized natural gas plants.

This shift to gas has been dramatic. In 2005, coal plants generated 50 percent of the nation’s electricity while natural gas generated just 18 percent. A decade later, utilities are using natural gas to generate about 33 percent of our electricity and coal just 30 percent. This year, for the first time, natural gas is going to generate the largest share of the nations’s electric power.

Greater reliance on natural gas has been great news for everyone except for the coal industry and the most fringe environmental activists. These activists have made a mountain out of a mole hill when it comes to methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas, but emissions of it from natural gas production have never negated the benefit of using natural gas in place of coal.

In fact, despite a surge in U.S. natural gas production, methane emissions are steadily falling. There was a strong argument to be made that government action on methane emissions was totally unnecessary, but regulations are now here and the issue should be settled.

The shale revolution has been a game-changer in helping the country reduce our carbon footprint. It has allowed us to cut emissions and do so without raising energy costs. It’s past time those concerned about tackling climate change stop fighting the shale gas revolution and embrace it.

Porter is an energy and environmental consultant, based in Savannah GA.  Earlier, he was an EPA assistant administrator in Washington DC.





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