By Irina Slav
When former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in 2013 that the natural gas boom was helping America fight climate change, not everyone was convinced, with methane leaks cited as cause for concern. As it turns out, those concerns might be warranted, according to new research that takes a lot of the green out of our precious natural gas.
“My look at the evidence to date suggests that this [methane leaks] in no way eliminates the significant advantage of gas over coal for CO2 emissions,” Moniz insisted.
Fast-forward to 2019 where research from Stanford University found that the surge in natural gas use in many parts of the world has helped to drive carbon emissions to a record-high over the last two years. Now, we’re on track to break this record and this, according to the Stanford researchers, is because of gas.
On the face of it, all looks good.
Coal use is falling in all the major emitters—the United States, China, and the European Union—and renewables use is rising. Along with it, natural gas use is rising, too. The closer look taken by researchers at natural gas, however, shows that growth in its consumption globally was responsible for 60 percent of carbon emissions growth in the last few years.
And the Stanford researchers are not alone. A report by the Global Carbon Project recently noted that emissions had increased by 2.8 percent in the U.S. last year, with China on its heels with a 2.3-percent increase, and the European Union—for all its environmental reputation—recording an emissions increase of 2.1 percent.
Natural gas consumption, the authors of the report noted, has grown by the fastest rate of all fossil fuels, not least because of its reputation as a cleaner cousin of coal. With it, emissions have risen—a correlation that is only logical. But there is more to the story.
“Natural gas use has grown in essentially every region of the world—and in many countries—over the past five years as energy consumption has increased,” the Global Carbon Project paper reads. Yet the authors do note that the decline in coal use and, therefore, emissions from coal, had been enabled by the switch to natural gas in many power plants. Still, the news is not all good.
“Coal use dropped another ten percent this year and is down by half since 2005. Cheaper natural gas and solar power are gaining market share,” one of the authors of the report and chair of the Global Carbon Project, Rob Jackson, told Salon. “But more than half of our natural gas goes to industry and homes for heating and more, not for electricity. These uses are growing rapidly, increasing fossil fuel emissions, not decreasing them.”
Indeed, back in 2014, the Union of Concerned Scientists noted in an overview of natural gas that it does emit a lot less carbon dioxide than coal when used in power generation, and less than oil derivatives when used as vehicle fuel.
However, “The drilling and extraction of natural gas from wells and its transportation in pipelines results in the leakage of methane, primary component of natural gas that is 34 times stronger than CO2 at trapping heat over a 100-year period and 86 times stronger over 20 years.”
It is this methane that mars natural gas’s reputation as a clean fuel and it has been garnering growing attention from regulators and the media, as well as from the energy industry.
Some oil companies have taken it upon themselves to monitor and report methane leaks, and others in the energy field have been working on methane storage and use for electricity generation. Yet this may be far from enough to deal with the leakage problem.
A new study from the MIT, published earlier this week, describes the problem succinctly.
Despite its reputation as a “bridge fuel”, “methane is itself a potent greenhouse gas, and it currently leaks from production wells, storage tanks, pipelines, and urban distribution pipes for natural gas. Increasing its usage, as a strategy for decarbonizing the electricity supply, will also increase the potential for such “fugitive” methane emissions, although there is great uncertainty about how much to expect.”
Satellite imaging is one way of tackling the problem. It just helped to uncover the full extent of ethane damage done by an Exxon well blowout in 2018. But tracking methane leaks can only go as far as generating data about the extent of the emissions problem. It cannot solve it, so forecasts see emissions rising again this year, for the third year in a row.
The silver lining: this increase will slow down.
“It’s hard to view slower growth as good news. But nonetheless, compared to last year and 2017 the growth rate was down substantially. What we need is for emissions to decline, not to rise slowly,” the GCP’s Rob Jackson told CNN earlier this month following the release of the organization’s latest report.
The only way to do this, however, would be to enact a lot stricter emissions legislation everywhere. This would be a challenging undertaking if the latest UN climate change talks are any indication. After 12 days of discussions, the delegates at this top climate change summit failed to agree on even a rule book for the Paris Agreement, including the creation of an international market for carbon permits and compensation for the countries most affected by climate change. It looks like any decisive action on methane emissions—and natural gas use—will have to wait, too.