Natural gas has often been touted as a cleaner-burning "bridge" away from other fossil fuels like coal and oil, but recent studies of leakage from gas fields and production facilities suggest that natural gas use may be far more dangerous to the planet's climate than expected, according to a report by KCET.org.
Natural gas is methane, which is itself a powerful greenhouse gas, rated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as posing about 21 times the threat to the earth's climate as carbon dioxide per ton, according to the report. "In other words, if natural gas escapes to the atmosphere without being burned — and thus turned into carbon dioxide and water vapor — then it worsens the planet's climate plight," KCET reported.
Studies have suggested that switching from burning coal to gas to generate electricity is good for the climate as long as no more than 3.2 percent of natural gas used leaks to the atmosphere during drilling, transportation, storage or use. More than 3.2 percent leaking to the atmosphere, on the other hand, undoes much of the benefit from replacing coal as a power-generating fossil fuel, according to KCET.
That 3.2 percent limit on leaking methane came into sharp focus following recent studies of gas fields in the American West. "First came news that researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado at Boulder had found leakage rates of about 4 percent from a gas well field near Denver," KCET reported. "That's just from the wellfield, not counting leaks farther down the distribution chain."
Then in December, the NOAA-UC Boulder team announced that it had found leakage rates of 9 percent from a gas field in Utah's Uinta Basin, a major gas-producing region, KCET reported. "In other words, the gas field was losing almost a tenth of its gas to the atmosphere," the report states.
The potential for climate damage is daunting, according to KCET. "In 2008, the Uinta Basin produced 299.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Nine percent of that would be nearly 27 billion cubic feet lost to the atmosphere, with a greenhouse gas power equivalent to more than 11 million tons of CO2," the report states.
To read the KCET article, click here.