Leaky Natural Gas Wells No Cleaner Than Coal, Says NOAA

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2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas, El Segundo, CA, Nov 2011

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas, El Segundo, CA, Nov 2011

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Natural gas is increasingly considered a cleaner alternative to coal when it comes to energy production--not to mention a greener alternative to gasoline when used in vehicles like the Honda Civic Natural Gas.

However, a new study suggests its green credentials may be damaged by methane leaks--negating any benefit from shifting to gas from dirtier coal-generated electricity.

As Nature reports, some plants are leaking significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

In a meeting with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one research team suggested that a plant in the Uinta Basin of Utah was leaking up to 9 percent of its total production--nearly double that of the cumulative loss rates from industry data.

Another field near Denver, Colorado, was estimated to leak around 4 percent of its output.

Scientists at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Princeton University say that shifting to natural gas from coal has immediate climatic benefits--provided the cumulative leakage rate from natural gas production is below 3.2 percent.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, estimated to be around 70 times stronger than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. While its overall contribution to greenhouse gases is lower than CO2, large-scale leaks can offset the benefits of its use compared to coal.

Provided leaks are kept in check, the benefits of natural gas accumulate over time, particularly if methane plants replace coal stations.

Official figures for methane leaks are lower than recent studies. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2009 that cumulative leaks totaled only 2.4 percent--below EDF and Princeton's safe limit.

The NOAA and the University of Texas are now launching a comprehensive study of natural gas emissions across the U.S, to determine whether leaks really are as big a problem as they're beginning to seem.

If plants nationwide are leaking methane at similar rates to those detected in Colorado--or worse, the plant in Utah--then the benefits of gas-generated electricity of CNG could be minimal.

[Hat tip: Brian Henderson]


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Comments (12)
  1. Hello.
    I just wanted to add an little information.
    In france, this topic came out a week ago in public newspapers (a first paper came out from NOAA scientist in Journal of Geophysical research in Feb. Last year).

    French government is still stopping any field developpment action about Shales gaz extraction.
    All the figures you highlighted here ( I just saw slightly different values of Methane/CO2 effect rations) are only about gas extracted from cracking the Shales that trapped this methane.
    The old conventional extraction methods are much more effective in that matter since it's not indended to create cracks that partly divert the gas in the area around the well.
    (hoping that my english is clear enough)

  2. Here is some more information. You have not addressed the more important pollution concerns that I mentioned. Would appreciate your thoughts on those.


  3. I can't find it right now but another study just released disputes the findings cited in this article.
    Natural gas , more importantly, reduces particulates, mercury, and sulfur. Sulfur creats acid rain. Base power requires coal, nuclear, or natural gas. Take your pick. Mine is clean burning, inexpensive natural gas. It is the rational choice for base power.

    Natural gas is the future of energy. It is replacing dirty old coal plants, and dangerous expensive nuclear plants. It will fuel cars, trucks, vans, buses, locomotives, aircraft, ships, tractors, air conditioners, engines of all kinds. It costs far less. It will help keep us out of more useless wars, where we shed our blood and money. It is used to make many products. It lowers CO

  4. I'm a proponent for more (if possible) hydro, combined with intelligent conservation of excess energy usage to help cut coal and ng needs in the electricity generation plants. Using NG in power plants to power electric cars is still cleaner than oil refining, trucking and then burning in cars also.

  5. One more bit is that coal and NG have a limited lifespan of maybe 50 years for NG and 100+ years for coal. Then what will the 9 billion people do after that?

    Think of the "what then" arguments once these limited fuels actually do run out. Sure, not in our lifetime, but it's much like hearing that a 40 mile wide asteroid will be striking the earth in 120 years. What do you do about it now?

  6. build a giant laser to chop up the asteroid into bite-size chunks?

  7. Running out of junk to burn is unlikely to be our main concern unfortunately. We'll go the way of the dinosaurs way before that.


    Same, shorter:

    So, yes indeed, shale gas is even less of an answer than regular natural gas.

  8. That makes no sense at all, just run the car on natural gas, and skip the loss of energy in the transmission line. Your contention that the electric car is sooo green is misplaced. By promoting CNG vehicles and building the refueling infrastructure, we will be half way to replacing gasoline and diesel, after the refueling is in place, we just switch from internal combustion engines to nat gas powered fuel cells.

  9. @Tom: The Lomborg article refers to a study that has been widely critiqued as using strange data--the motor of an electric car does not weigh 900 pounds, for instance--and in which the authors of the study themselves admit that it is an outlier.

  10. Nuclear plants need not be dangerous if LFTR technology is used.
    NG is just another stop gap fossil fuel that will run out. Not to mention more people have died in NG accidents than in nuclear plant accidents.

  11. I am amazed that solar is not being looked at more for warm weather areas. The Toyota Prius has a solar panel roof available that helps with the ac to cool the cabin. I wanted to like the 8 gallon tanked Honda NG civic, but it was to cramped and to much money for such a cheap looking and feeling car. I'm with John I think that Hydro, along with solar, and of course hybrid/plug ins need to be further developed.

  12. To all those who said natural gas was the way of the future, ha ha Lol!

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