Greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas drilling operations pose a serious threat to the environment and must be accurately measured if Americans are to understand the full effects of using more natural gas. That is the opinion of the Bloomberg.com editors, as expressed in a recent editorial.
"The great promise of natural gas, we're often told, is that it will be better for the climate than other fossil fuels. In fact, this can come true only if very little of the fuel is allowed to escape, unburned, into the air," the editorial states.
"The trouble is, we don't know how much natural gas leaks as it is extracted, processed, transported and used, and some evidence suggests the amount may be more than we have assumed," the editorial continues. "As the U.S. gears up to use more of the fuel, not only for electricity and home heating but also to power cars and trucks and for export, the need to find out how much is getting away is urgent."
The editors note that an expert panel convened by the U.S. Department of Energy recommended that methane emissions be accurately measured and added, "So far, their call has gone unanswered."
When methane, the principal component of natural gas, escapes into the air, it has a much stronger greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide has, 72 times stronger over a 20 year span, the article notes. It goes on to state that "the maximum leakage we can afford is 3.2 percent of the total amount of natural gas used." If methane escapes at a higher rate, natural gas winds up aggravating global warming more than using coal does.
Out of date estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put the leakage rate at 2.4 percent, but recent measurements taken near a natural-gas field north of Denver indicate that the actual amount of methane escaping there is higher about 4 percent.
The editorial goes on to recommend thorough leakage monitoring. "What's ultimately needed is a full accounting of all methane escaping from the natural-gas supply chain. Such an effort is expected to cost many millions of dollars and require cooperation by federal agencies involved in energy, the environment, transportation and trade. In calling for the effort last August, the Energy secretary's Shale Gas Production Subcommittee wisely recommended that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy coordinate the job and make sure it gets funded and started immediately.
"In the meantime, as the subcommittee also said, natural-gas producers should begin their own voluntary efforts to directly measure leaks, even as they work to reduce them."
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