Natural gas has been touted as a clean, green alternative to coal and oil, especially in recent advertisements such as the America's Natural Gas Alliance's "Think About It" campaign with TV ads that feature the Denver International Airport, L.A. transit and TOTE container ships as being "green" and "environmentally sustainable" because they are powered by natural gas. However, there is more to the natural gas phenomena, which we can observe with economic, environmental and political lenses. As these advertisements are sponsored by the oil and gas industry, there are a number of things the advertisements aren't telling you about natural gas:
1. Natural gas is a fossil fuel. Fossil fuels are derived from the remains of organisms and include coal, oil, shale oil, tar sands, natural gas and peat. Burning these fossil fuels for energy needs releases greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, causing climate change. When burned, natural gas does emit less CO2 than other fossil fuels such as coal or oil (half CO2 compared to coal), but GHGs (notably methane) are still emitted. In addition, the treatment and transport of natural gas as well as the production of electricity that occurs at the power plant also release GHG emissions. For these reasons, natural gas cannot be considered renewable or clean energy.
2. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is where natural gas comes from. Although fracking has made the United States one of the largest oil and gas producers and kept gas prices low, fracking means contaminated land, water and air. A plethora of chemicals are utilized as part of the extraction process and hazardous air pollutants such as methane, ozone (smog), and benzene are emitted. Health effects include cancer, birth defects, and other chronic health problems. See a previous post of ours for more on the environmental and health effects of fracking.
3. Natural gas production has been largely unmonitored and unregulated in the US. In a recent study by the Environment America Research & Policy Center, researchers found that in Pennsylvania, fracking companies "violate rules and regulations meant to protect the environment and human health on a daily basis" between January 2011 and August 2014. Moreover, the Halliburton Loophole in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempts chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing from federal oversight, which prevents communities living around wells from knowing what is entering their water. Methane leakage from fracking is not directly regulated by the EPA, although methane is a more potent GHG than CO2. Furthermore, academics and researchers have found that the EPA understated actual levels of methane leakage involved in fracking.
4. Exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) is energy intensive. Interest groups are pushing for the U.S. to ease regulations on exporting natural gas to Europe and Asia. But in order to export this fuel, it must be converted into a liquified form to be transported and then reconverted back to the gas form upon arrival which require a significant amount of energy. The Sierra Club estimates that the entire life cycle of exported LNG is as dirty as coal and even the U.S. Energy Information Administration has reported that additional LNG exports would "increase CO2 levels under all cases and export scenarios." Moreover, the U.S. doesn't have much infrastructure for exporting the gas. Building new LNG export terminals is not only costly, but also an investment in fossil fuel use, not a deterrent.
5. It's relatively cheap. The abundance of cheap American natural gas has contributed significantly to a global drop in the price of oil. And although this may be great for consumers, it means renewables have to work even harder to be competitive. It also means there's no incentive not to use fossil fuels, thus more will inevitably be burnt. One advantage of lower oil prices is that it will make it tougher to make a profit from fracking. Governments could also take advantage of these low oil prices and implement needed changes to energy systems, such as eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and incorporating a carbon tax. Research facilitated by the Copenhagen Consensus recently identified ending fossil fuel subsidies as one of the most cost-effective Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) due to the potential savings of $550 billion in government spending each year.
6. NGOs aren't satisfied with the status quo of natural gas. This is largely due to the risks associated with the gas' extraction process as well as the lack of regulation and oversight. As long as natural gas is in the energy mix, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) will "continue to demand improved safeguards for its development, and make it a priority to advocate for a truly clean energy future based on renewable energy sources and efficiency." Many other NGOs and localized groups are also working to keep communities' resources and overall well-being protected from fracking operations.
Natural gas is indeed a "cleaner" burning fuel than coal (America's sweetheart energy source), as it emits less CO2. But depending on the producers' ability to capture methane leakage during the extraction phase, it is not necessarily better for the climate. When it comes down to it, natural gas is just the lesser of two evils, for the reasons stated above. While there may be potential for natural gas to ween us off coal use, this is just a short term, unsustainable fix to obtaining energy security and reducing fossil-fuel dependency. So next time you see one of these natural gas advertisements, remember these is more to the story.