Shift more of the nation off coal-powered electricity and onto that supplied by natural gas, and what do you get? A significant reduction in the carbon emissions driving the alarming climatic shifts we already experience in our daily lives.
That's the theory anyway, because natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide that coal does when burned. This ongoing electricity switch may account for a significant portion of the overall decrease in U.S. greenhouse gas releases that's occurred over the last few years.
But the climate benefits of natural gas hinge on just how much is leaking from the wells, pipelines, compressor stations and other infrastructure extracting and delivering the fuel. And what that amount is no one seems to know precisely.
We do know that methane, natural gas' primary component, is a vastly more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Some researchers think that as little as a 3 percent loss of methane from its production cycle could cancel out the emissions reductions achieved by moving from coal to gas. Recent studies certainly don't stoke confidence. One published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November concluded that U.S. methane emissions were 1.5 times higher than previously thought, and that those for the oil and gas industry in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas were five times higher.
You'd think the industry would fall all over itself to plug leaks and ensure its place in the U.S. clean energy pantheon. Presenters and attendees at an industry conference last summer certainly talked that talk; they beat the hey-enviro-hypocrites-we're-reducing-greenhouse-gases! drum at every opportunity. When President Obama made natural gas a key part of his climate strategy, energy companies and trade groups were more than happy to pile onboard. You might even think that the industry would embrace Colorado's landmark proposal to rein in fugitive methane emissions from oil and gas operations, announced last fall as part of a larger effort to tighten air quality rules. After all, doing so would make the industry's recent concern about climate change seem more, well, genuine. Indeed, some of the state's major operatorsamong them Noble, Anadarko and EnCanasupported the revision.
But two major trade associations representing the industry in Colorado? Not so much.
In early January, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Colorado Petroleum Association filed documents with the state's Air Quality Control Commission arguing that it doesn't have the authority to regulate methane and that doing so as proposed was inappropriate, unjustified and unfairly singled out the oil and gas industry for its greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, they suggested that the parts of the rules that cracked down on emissions of volatile organic compounds, which contribute to the formation of lung-damaging, smog-making ozone, should apply only in parts of the state that have already been officially designated as zones with significant air quality problems. Essentially, that would mean that energy companies could pollute more in areas with cleaner air.
"The Colorado Oil and Gas Association supports many aspects of the rule," spokesman Doug Flanders said diplomatically in a statement. "We are committed to continuing the good work we have accomplished with state regulators to ensure our air stays clean while allowing this critical industry to responsibly develop oil and natural gasa product each one of us are using right now."
Sorry, guys, but you can't have it both ways. If you want to claim that natural gas is a key part of the solution to climate change, you can't expect the public to buy that all companies are going to voluntarily tackle the leak issue. "Responsibly" developing natural gas is going to take tight regulation to ensure that it's a bridge fuel to a cleaner energy economy and not a bridge to nowhere.
As Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor John Deutch, who chaired the Obama administration's panel evaluating the risks of fracking, has observed, the industry's reluctance to be transparent about the chemicals used in the drilling process has hurt companies more than it's helped them, exploding into a public backlash and a nationwide anti-fracking movement. If the formulas are safe, why must companies hide their composition, trade secret or not? "The industry, by saying, 'We're going to hold something back,' is paying a cost," Deutch recently told EnergyWire.
Now, it looks like it's making a similar mistake with methane. I guess that's another one to file under #missedopportunity.
Sarah Gilman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is associate editor of the magazine and tweets @Sarah_Gilman.