To call natural gas ‘clean’ would be a misnomer. Natural gas is a fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide when burned and is an important contributor to climate change. The general consensus, however, is that when compared to oil (and petroleum products) or coal, natural gas it is by far the ‘cleaner’ choice for providing base-load power generation, heating homes, and for a series of other industrial and transport applications.
Still, the debate over methane emissions from natural gas production, transport, and distribution calls into question this assumption.
A new study by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) examined the methane emissions from natural gas production on federal and tribal lands. The study found that total natural gas loss, including flaring, amounted to 65 billion cubic feet (bcf) in 2013, or enough to meet the heating and cooking needs of around 1.6 million homes.
The implications of the study are serious. Not only does natural gas loss represent a waste of finite natural resources but it makes a significant and unnecessary contribution to the already seemingly impossible task of combating climate change.
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While methane (the major component of natural gas) has a far shorter lifespan than carbon dioxide, it is more efficient at trapping radiation, making the impacton climate change 25 times greater over a 100 year period. Over 20 years, methane’s warming potential is 84 times greater than CO2.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane accounts for around 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, almost 30 percent of which came from the production, transport, and distribution of oil and natural gas.
The latest study is part of a much broader effort by the Environmental Defense Fund to measure methane emissions across the United States, not just on federal and tribal lands. In an earlier study released last year, the EDF argued that adoption of existing technologies and operating practices, as simple as more frequent inspections, could help the U.S. reduce methane emissions by 40 percent by 2018.
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