The problem with natural gas: methane emissions

The largest methane leak in the nation’s history began last October in an underground natural gas storage facility in California’s Aliso Canyon. When it was all said and done, experts said that 110,000 tons of methane had leaked into the atmosphere over the course of four months and conjured up ways to describe the figure in relatable terms. They said it was the equivalent of adding more than half a million cars to the roads for a year.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said that oil and gas production in the state emitted the same amount of methane, 110,000 tons, in 2014, representing a one percent increase from the previous year. The Aliso Canyon leak emanated from one source, leading it to be declared a disaster, whereas leaks occurred in countless spots across the shale fields of Pennsylvania, where it was considered business as usual. The effect on the climate was, however, the same.

{mosads}For years, fracking opponents have pointed out that natural gas’ reputation for contributing less CO2 to the atmosphere was more than cancelled out by methane leakage rates during production and transmission. Methane, the main ingredient of natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas, 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide is at warming the atmosphere. Another report out last week, however, called natural gas’ cleaner-burning reputation into question.

The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) announced last week that CO2 emissions from natural gas were expected to surpass those from coal by 10% for the first time in nearly half a century. In a side by side comparison, burning natural gas emits more than half the CO2 that burning coal and oil do, but last week’s announcement shows what happens when you burn a whole lot of natural gas. The comparisons seem less relevant as emissions skyrocket.

Methane and carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas are on the rise, making the need for the government to change course and ban fracking all the more urgent. The path we are on presently is absolutely unsustainable and one the entire environmental community should oppose in unison. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

One organization that has been a notoriously enthusiastic supporter of natural gas drilling is the Environmental Defense Fund. In response to the news of the methane emissions increase in Pennsylvania, EDF’s Andrew Williams shamefully and preposterously minimized the problem of methane leaks from oil and gas operations to Public News Service-PA. “Sometimes the fix is as easy as tightening a value that’s maybe a little bit loose or shutting a hatch that’s left open on top of a storage tank,” he said. “The type[sic] of controls that we’re talking about are readily available and are highly cost-effective.”

Right now, about 9,700 unconventional wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania. Thousands of miles of pipelines and about 500 compressor stations move the gas to processing plants, power plants, and local gas utilities. In addition, an estimated 350,000 old wells, classified as orphaned or abandoned, dot the state. The old wells are in varying states of disrepair when they are found and they are almost always leaking methane. Leaks are a big deal in Pennsylvania. Tightening a few valves isn’t going to come close to solving the problem.

Unfortunately, methane emissions are likely to increase in Pennsylvania in the coming years, thanks to a new generation of natural gas power plants. The results of a recent right-to-know request of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection revealed that the agency has approved 42 new natural gas power plants since January 2014. Pennsylvanians Against Fracking compiled its own list of power plants mentioned in articles and industry reports. Our list contained 15 plants not on the DEP’s list. That means that even more plants may be on the horizon.

The proliferation of power plants is in line with another report from the EIA that said natural gas production in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations is expected to increase to more than 40 billion cubic feet per day through 2040. Annual methane emissions of 110,000 tons and CO2 emissions that just eclipse those of coal will be the stuff of what we’ll think of as the good old days. It’s a terrifying thought.

Karen Feridun is founding member of Pennsylvanians Against Fracking.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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