Natural gas is not better for the climate than coal

Natural gas is not better for the climate than coal. The problem is, it leaks when they drill, and more so with horizontal drilling and fracking.  The drilling process has always included some venting at the beginning of drilling. In addition, processing and transporting gas involves leaks; most of the pipe system for natural gas is over 50 years old.

The reason why people why people have referred to natural gas as a clean fuel is that burning it emits half as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as coal, and also less soot and smog.

However, natural gas is nearly all methane, a much more potent warming gas than carbon dioxide. For the first twenty years after methane is released into air, it has a warming effect  110 times as strong as carbon dioxide, according to newer studies.  Then methane gradually breaks down, and its warming effect, measured over a 100 year period, is about 25 times as strong as that of carbon dioxide.

That is one reason why there are  burning flares on oil fields. Natural gas often comes out when they drill for oil, and they burn it. Then it releases carbon dioxide instead of the more potent gas, methane.

So how much methane escapes when they retrieve and process natural gas? Estimates of leakage and venting rates range from 1.5% to 8% of the gas retrieved. It is very difficult to measure this, and it has not been regularly done.

Counting only emissions from burning, not from leakage, natural gas releases 117 pounds of CO2 for each million BTU of energy output, diesel oil releases 161, and coal releases 210 pounds, according to the EIA.

If we assume a low leakage rate, say 3%, of the natural gas, and then take the lower warming multiple of natural gas/methane, of 25, and add that CO2 equivalent to the 117 pound of CO2 emitted by burning, we see that the total use of natural gas releases the equivalent of   205 pounds of carbon dioxide,  about the same as for coal. Assuming a higher leakage rate, like 5% and a higher warming multiple of  say 75, gives natural gas a CO2 equivalent warming rate of 556 pounds, or two and a half times worse than coal.

The US government has been encouraging more production of natural gas in the US, referring to it as a clean fuel, even though the Environmental Protection Agency admits that there has not been good data on the amount of leakage. Analysis of the leakage issue by scientists at Cornell University has pointed out that this poses a serious danger to the climate.

The response of the government, and some industry representatives and environmentalists, has been to call for regulations controlling leakage. It is hard to imagine that venting and leakage could be reduced much below 3%, especially since they have been a regular part of the retrieval process, and the cost of capturing those small amounts is greater than the gas is worth.  Even if some companies in the US were able to reduce leakage, that is not likely to be done in drilling in other countries.

Most of the natural gas in the US is used for heating buildings and for generating electricity. Geothermal technology is an excellent clean alternative for heating and cooling buildings.  Wind energy can provide electricity at rates that are competitive with electricity generated by natural gas. We have affordable and safe alternatives to natural gas.

A few years ago, decision makers made a serious mistake in promoting ethanol, although studies show that  its greenhouse gas emissions are as bad as oil.

The world is too close to catastrophic effects of global warming. New investment in electricity generation should only be in green technology now, replacing natural gas and coal generation facilities as they reach the end of their life spans.


Tax credits for wind production

In the middle of a drought that has affected half the country, the worst since the 1930s, with scientists saying that the likelihood of drought is greatly increased by warming emissions from fossil fuels, oil, coal and natural gas, the Republican presidential candidate is supporting continued tax breaks for these fossil fuels, but opposing tax incentives to help the developing wind power industry.


It appears that some Republican Senators disagree with candidate Romney and several of them joined Democrats in a 19-5 vote in the Senate Finance Committee to renew tax credits for wind power. 81% of  installed wind power plants are in Congressional districts that are represented by Republicans, such as Iowa and South Dakota.

A one year extension of a production tax credit for wind would be a step in the right direction if Congress approves it, even though it is tentative, tiny, and late. According to testimony before a Subcommittee last December by a Congressional economic analyst,  tax incentives for wind energy has been mostly temporary, extended 7 times since 1992, and allowed to lapse three times. The uncertainty of these provisions discourages investors. There is usually a 3 to 4 year period of planning, siting and permitting before wind equipment is ordered. A tax credit that may expire before it can be used is marginally useful.    The credit should be extended for at least 5 years to allow investors and producers some consistent support as the industry scales up.

Wind energy has huge potential for growth and is growing fast, – over 31% last year, providing over a third of all new power generating facilities. Analysts believe that the US can increase the share of electric power coming from wind from 3% now to 20% in 18 years. South Dakota and Iowa are already at about 20% each. Germany now gets 25% of its electricity from renewables.

Consumers will see the cost of solar and wind technology drop as research improves them and increased production reduces prices.  Bloomberg analysts estimate that the cost drops 7% for each doubling of wind energy installation.

Oil, coal and natural gas are mature industries that have become powerful with the help of subsidies which have been permanent features of the tax code for over 50 years and have been much larger than the subsidies to renewables according to congressional testimony.  Exploration credits, depletion credits, and royalty relief reduce costs and raise profits for the petroleum industry.  The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation has estimated continued direct subsidies for oil and gas or $74 billion over the next couple years unless Congress changes these laws. $75 billion is the average yearly profit of Exxon-Mobil between 2008 and 2011.

It is time for consumers to get some government help for the development of competitive energy production without fossil fuels.