THE BLOG
07/01/2013 10:26 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

Obama's Climate Action Plan: Natural Gas, Fracking, Methane and Mexico

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Last week, President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan. The plan mainly sets out to reduce emissions, especially carbon emissions. It also aims to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Focusing on reducing carbon emissions was a welcomed move by environmentalists, green groups and activists, who have been pushing the administration to have the EPA establish and enforce limits on carbon emissions for new and existing coal-fired power plants.

But the push to reduce specifically carbon emissions had another effect: had President Obama stated that the aim of his Climate Action Plan were to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which it should be since they are responsible for producing global warming, he would have had to address the other less often named greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change: methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases.

To be sure carbon dioxide ranks highest among greenhouse gases, producing 84 percent of emissions, and the climate action plan also aims to reduce the other greenhouse gas emissions.

But methane (CH4) is the second highest greenhouse gas, accounting for 9 percent of domestic greenhouse gases. Worse, according to the EPA, methane's impact on climate change is 20 times greater than carbon when measured over a 100-year period.

Methane's main sources, according to the EPA, are the natural gas and petroleum industry (30 percent); raising of livestock and the dairy industry (23 percent); landfills (17 percent); coal mining (11 percent); manure management (9 percent); wastewater treatment (3 percent) and other (7 percent).

And methane is the primary component of natural gas.

Aware of the problematic role methane plays in contributing to climate change, Obama's Climate Action Plan touts that "Notably, since 1990, methane emissions in the United States have decreased 9 percent." Sounds like methane emissions are under control.

The Devil is in the Details

But the figure presented above, parsed further, tells an interesting story and one that undercuts the narrative of "clean natural gas."

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) states that "methane emissions declined steady from 1990 to 2001, as emissions from coal mining and landfills fell," corroborating the figures cited in the Climate Action Plan.

The EIA continues on to state that the emissions "then rose from 2002 to 2009 a result of moderate increases in emissions related to energy, agriculture and waste management that more than offset a decline in industrial emissions of methane over the same period."

In particular, the EIA states, "U.S. methane emissions from natural gas systems grew from 1990 to 2009 by 27 percent largely because of increases in natural gas consumption."

These figures paint a different picture about the trajectory of methane emissions and their production by natural gas, when contrasted with what President Obama had to say about natural gas in his climate speech:

"Now, [...] we're [...] producing more cleaner-burning natural gas than any other country on Earth. And, again, sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.

Federally supported technology has helped our businesses drill more effectively and extract more gas. And now, we'll keep working with the industry to make drilling safer and cleaner, to make sure that we're not seeing methane emissions, and to put people to work modernizing our natural gas infrastructure so that we can power more homes and businesses with cleaner energy.

The bottom line is natural gas is creating jobs. It's lowering many families' heat and power bills. And it's the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future."

Discussing the benefits of natural gas in his climate speech, President Obama touted the reduction of carbon emissions twice. While he acknowledges that natural gas produces methane emissions, he argues that the industry will "make sure that we are not seeing methane emissions."

To be sure methane emissions are not the only problem associated with natural gas.

Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing

According to the Annual Energy Outlook 2013, a report released by the EIA that forecasts energy growth, natural gas production is predicted to increase 44 percent between 2011 and 2040, "results from the increased development of shale gas, tight gas, and coalbed methane resources."

Shale gas is secured through hydraulic fracturing also known as fracking. Fracking has come in for heavy criticism by environmentalists and local communities for its effect on the environment, especially its contamination of soil and drinking water; its relationship to earthquakes; and its waste of drinking water in an era of drought and increasing water scarcity.

On June 24, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a Duke University study, which found that "drinking water in wells near the Marcellus Shale in northeast Pennsylvania have methane levels six times higher than drinking water wells farther away."

Returning to the impacts of shale gas extraction on climate change, a study published in the journal Climate Change, considered "Methane and the Greenhouse Gas Footprint of Natural Gas from Shale Formations." It found that "methane emissions are at least 30 percent more than and perhaps more than twice as great as those from conventional gas."

"Methane," it continued, "is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential that is far greater than that of carbon dioxide, particularly over the first few decades following emission." For example, "compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 percent greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon."

The study supports what most environmentalists argue: that methane's impact is greater in the short-term, taking a 20-year or less horizon, while the EPA and its proponents often look at its impact over 100 years. So methane's impact is being undercounted. Moreover, global warming does not have a 100 year horizon to be addressed.

According to Bloomberg News, the EPA proposed "in April to change its calculation of methane's climate intensity," stating that it is "considering raising the global warming potential multiplier from 21 to 25, a change that would increase the official estimate of U.S. emissions." Additionally, the EPA's current estimates do not include a shorter time frame, which would be vital to include given the urgency of climate change. Some calculations for methane's greenhouse gas potency in the short term estimate it to be 70 to 100 times higher than carbon dioxide.

There's another added factor. The Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for ensuring that the natural gas industry drafts rules that protect people and the environment. On May 16, 2013, the BLM adopted legislation in a 171-page document. According to DeSmogBlog, the BLM also revealed that it will adopt a model bill written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), known for being funded by the oil and gas industry, and in this case written by ExxonMobil.

Energy Shift - Domestically and Globally?

After petroleum (36 percent), natural gas is the second largest energy source at 25 percent. The other sources break down as follows: coal, 20 percent; renewable energy, 9 percent; and nuclear energy, 8 percent.

Natural gas, unlike other energy sources, is fairly evenly divided in its use: 33 percent, industrial; 32 percent residential and commercial; and 31percent electrical power generation. Most natural gas is used to heat and generate electricity.

Here's the good news: the rather unsexy but vital increases in energy efficiency that President Obama celebrated in his climate speech go a long way to ensuring that buildings, be they industrial, commercial or residential, need less energy. And earlier last week, the International Energy Agency released its second annual market report predicating that renewable energy will surpass natural gas as the second most used energy source after coal by 2016.

Here's the bad news: the EIA's American Energy Outlook 2013 -- which predicts a growth resulting from the fracking of shale gas, although this excess is not necessarily going to be needed, due to improvements in efficiency standards and increases in affordable renewable energy -- predicts that "the United States becomes a net exporter of natural gas in 2020."

Is that the ultimate aim of the Obama administration? To continue to extract natural gas and risk producing methane, which will continue to contribute to global warming, even though our domestic need for it might plummet, so that it can exported?

And how will it be exported? In order to be exported, it needs to be transformed into liquified natural gas. It takes energy to convert gas to liquid gas for shipments. And how will it be shipped? By pipelines? Over long distances? They are often leaky, forming another source of methane emissions.

The report continues that "most of the projected growth in the U.S. exports consists of pipeline exports to Mexico."

According to a 2011 report "World Shale Gas Resources" released by the EIA, Mexico holds the world's fourth largest reserves. Earlier this year, Mexico announced that it plans to carry out hydraulic fracturing but it lacks the water to do so.

Additionally, when President Enrique Peña Nieto unveiled the Mexico's National Climate Change Strategy earlier this month, its eighth "ax of action" was to "reduce 'short life' pollutant emissions, such as black carbon and methane, to improve the health and welfare of Mexicans."

Given the hazards with extraction and transporting natural gas, why not help Mexico set up solar and wind farms to meet energy needs of businesses and homes instead? Last time I checked, sunshine was not lacking in Mexico.