Is Natural Gas a Clean Energy Relief from Coal or is it just as Bad for the Environment?

Compared to coal, natural gas is often seen as a cleaner fossil fuel since it produces half as much carbon dioxide when it is burned. Furthermore, other toxic emissions, such as carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, that are generated from burning fossil fuels are much less for natural gas than coal as seen in Figure 1 [1]. Because these facts are often promoted and are well known advantages of natural gas, I have always been led me to believe that it is a very good non-renewable alternative to coal. However, a recent article from National Geographic argues that switching from coal, which accounted for over 37% of the US energy consumption in 2008, to natural gas would do little to stop global warming [2, 3]; the argument is based on a study published last month in Environmental Research Letters. The study stated that a global switch from coal to natural gas would only decrease predicted global warming temperatures by about 20%. On the other hand, a switch from coal to renewable energy sources would result in a 57%-81% global warming temperature decrease [2].

Figure 1 [1]

Image

An article from Star-Telegram raises another concern about global warming caused from the principle component of natural gas, methane which is able to trap heat 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide [4, 1]. Essentially this release of methane into the atmosphere could offset the benefits seen from switching from coal to natural gas; however, the oil and gas industry try to reduce this problem by using equipment to prevent methane release into the atmosphere [4]. In 1993 the Natural Gas STAR Program was also created to reduce methane emissions by encouraging the industry to implement proven technologies and practices that would help accomplish this goal. The success of this program can be seen in Figure 2 which shows the U.S. cumulative and annual methane emission reductions in billion cubic foot for 2010 [5].

Figure 2 [5]

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The two articles do a good job at not condemning natural gas, but present very valid points about natural gas and how it is not necessarily the world’s best shot at combating global warming. While I agree that there are some drawbacks with natural gas (like there are drawbacks with every type of energy source), I think that using it in place of coal is still a good step to take in an effort to reduce our environmental impact, even if it is a small step. Though switching to renewable energy sources is obviously the best choice to reduce global warming, it would be hard to make a complete switch to renewables due to their high economic price. Finally, I think it is important for the oil and natural gas industry to continue to improve how it handles methane capture, flaring, and leaks so that people can have more confidence about the environmental benefits of using natural gas over coal.

[1] NaturalGas.org. (2011). Natural Gas and the Environment.

http://www.naturalgas.org/environment/naturalgas.asp

[2] Inman, Mason. (2012, March). Natural Gas a Weak Weapon Against Climate Change, New Study Asserts. National Geographic.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2012/03/120314-natural-gas-global-warming-study/

[3] Webber, Michael E. ” Conventional Fossil Fuels: Coal and Natural Gas.” Jan. 2012. Lecture.

[4] Star-Telegram. (2012, March). Rise in Natural Gas Production Raises Greenhouse Effect Concern.

http://www.star-telegram.com/2012/03/18/3818822/rise-in-natural-gas-production.html

[5] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2011, November). Natural Gas STAR Program.

http://www.epa.gov/gasstar/accomplishments/index.html#three

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1 Comment

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One response to “Is Natural Gas a Clean Energy Relief from Coal or is it just as Bad for the Environment?

  1. kramlal

    I agree that natural gas is not necessarily a significant relief from the negative impacts of coal but that it provides a short-term solution or ‘bridge’ to a cleaner future in the long term. You noted the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas. It is interesting that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reportedly doubled their estimates of the volume of methane emitted from loose pipe fittings and gas wells from what was initially shown in April 2011 [1]. Methane produced from natural gas drilling alone is responsible for at least one-fifth of man-made methane emissions and the EPA predicts drastic increases in these emissions with increased drilling. Furthermore, as of November 2011 under the Clean Air act, smaller facilities will now be included in the emissions inventory, possibly making a significant increase in the overall estimate [1]. Studies suggest that the benefits of using natural gas are realized in more modern, efficient power plants but one problem is that half the plants in the United States are relatively low efficiency [1]. Exxon also predicts that natural gas will take over from coal as the leading source for electricity generation in the U.S. by 2025 [2]. It seems likely given the abundance of natural gas since the fairly recent discovery of shale gas plays in the U.S.
    I also agree with you that we would ideally like to switch to renewable energy sources but these are expensive and do not produce as abundant an energy supply [1]. Nuclear energy can be harnessed on a large scale without spewing huge quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere but it faces its own challenges of regulation, negative public perception (after disasters like Fukushima), and high pricing [3]. It almost seems like we have limited options after considering these various factors but we certainly know that we must move away from coal if we want a cleaner future. Maybe natural gas, although constrained in itself, is a baby step towards that cleaner future as we gradually wean ourselves off of coal and improve our ability to utilize cleaner, renewable energy sources economically.

    [1] Lustgarten, A. (2011, May). “Natural Gas not as clean as previously thought, new research suggests.” Huffington Post
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/25/natural-gas-clean_n_813750.html

    [2] Fowler, T. (2011, December). “Exxon declares gas king”. The Wall Street Journal
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203501304577084594165136990.html

    [3] The Economist (2012, March). “Nuclear Power, the dream that failed.” (from Print Edition)
    http://www.economist.com/node/21549936

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