Natural Gas Is Not A Clean Burning Renewable Fuel

“Natural gas is not a ‘bridge’ to a clean, renewable economy. It’s a ‘dead end’ to a dangerously high level of carbon in the atmosphere.”

By Brent Probinsky Sarasota, Florida

The big green and white Waste Management truck lumbered through the pleasant suburban neighborhood collecting trash from cans that lined the street.  Painted proudly in giant letters across its side was, “Think Green, Think Clean” and “We run on clean burning natural gas.” 

Waste Management should be praised for the company’s concern for the environment by converting part of its big truck fleet from dirty burning diesel fuel to “clean and renewable” natural gas. Right?  Well… not right.   Natural gas is not clean. It’s not renewable. It’s a dangerous fossil fuel like coal and oil and a major contributor to global warming and the climate crisis. 

Why does Waste Management proudly claim and much of the public believe that natural gas is a “clean” energy source and a “bridge” to a green, renewable economy?  Part of the answer lies in the fossil fuel industry’s clever but misleading marketing of natural gas as a clean burning fuel.  It was renamed, “natural gas,” from what it has always been, 85 to 95 percent methane, a very potent and dangerous greenhouse gas.   It reminds us of the fishing industry’s anointing the deep ocean dwelling Patagonian Tooth Fish to a more appetizing “Chilean Sea Bass.” No one wants to order a Tooth Fish for dinner anymore than they want their tanks filled with methane.

Natural gas is now in abundant supply thanks to the fracking technology that injects, water, chemicals and sand into underground gas sites, creating pressure that allows its release. More than half of the 500 dirty coal fired electric generating plants in the U.S. have been shut down or refitted to burn natural gas.  Natural gas is now the biggest source of fuel for electricity generation in the U.S.  In Florida, 61 % of electricity is generated by natural gas, 23% from coal and 12 % nuclear.  Florida ranks near the bottom at 47th in the country in renewable electric generation with only 3% of the total, mostly from biofuels such a sugar cane waste.  Florida is the third most populous state after California and Texas and the third state in the amount of electricity consumption.  The Sunshine State has enormous potential for photovoltaic electric generating plants, but that truly “clean” sector has not been adequately developed.

Those who tout the wonders of natural gas a clean or cleaner burning fuel, point out that burning of natural gas contributes only 448 grams of carbon emissions  per kilowatt hour as compared to coal that contributes 960 grams of carbon per kilowatt hour, diesel, 778 grams, and heavy oil, 760 grams. 

But methane, CH4, is a super potent greenhouse gas. When climate scientists measure its global warming potential, GWP, it’s an astounding 34 to 87 times more potent than CO2.  Though methane emissions don’t persist in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide – about 20 years as compared to hundreds or even thousands of years that carbon dioxide persists as a greenhouse gas – methane contributes 17% of the amount of dangerous greenhouse gases heating the planet.  Carbon dioxide contributes 70% and the balance is mostly nitrous oxide, N2O.  

What the fossil fuel companies don’t tell us when they claim that natural gas contributes only half the carbon as coal or oil, is that they are measuring only one part of the life cycle of natural gas, the point of combustion.  The main component of natural gas, methane, does not have to be burned to be a dangerous greenhouse gas.   The contribution of natural gas as potent, heat trapping gas, occurs at several points in its life cycle even before it’s burned. A major problem is that there are significant leaks of methane at oil and gas drilling sites. There are 500,000 natural gas wells alone, operating in the U.S.    During transport through the two million miles of natural gas pipelines and at compression stations, there are significant, unintentional methane leaks. There are also intentional releases of methane that occur along the supply chain, storage sites, export terminals and gas processing, such as for liquid natural gas, LNG.  According to researcher, Farika Powell, who wrote for the Sightline Institute, “from 2009 to 2014, drilling on federal lands released enough natural gas into the atmosphere to power 5.1 million homes for one year.” 

Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency just announced on Thursday that it’s seeking revocation of rules that require oil companies to detect and prevent methane leaks at drilling sites.  The larger oil and gas companies have voiced opposition to this proposed relaxation of environmental protections as they have already invested in the technology to comply, and smaller companies want to start drilling and compete without those costly technologies.

When the industry’s pre-combustion leaks of methane are taken into account, natural gas is at least equal to or even more than coal or oil’s contribution of heat trapping greenhouse gases. Why then, has it become the largest fuel for electric power plants?  Its abundance, cheap price and the misguided belief that it is a clean fuel and a bridge to a clean economy – have all added to its increased use – especially as a replacement for coal fired electric generating plants.

When decisions for major investments are made for fracking of natural gas, transport and storage, they may be in place of investments in the infrastructure of renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic and wind generated electricity that are now cheaper in many markets than oil and gas. This gas infrastructure will be in place for decades and delay the critical time horizon we have for conversion to renewables. The IPCC report states that by 2030 the world must cut carbon emissions in half and be fully decarbonized by 2050 to keep temperatures below a dangerous 1.5 C degree increase.

Natural gas is not a “bridge” to a clean, renewable economy. It’s a “dead end” to a dangerously high level of carbon in the atmosphere. We’ve just reached a new high of 415 parts per million, ppm, of carbon, compared to 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution. If we continue to conduct business as usual and increase carbon emissions at 2 ½ % per year, we’ll soon reach 450 or 550 ppm and see even higher levels in decades thereafter.  Some climate scientists predict that we could reach the unimaginably dangerous level of 700 ppm by 2100. That high level of carbon will cause a dramatic rise in the planet’s warming and a cascade of “feed backs” that cause a further increase of temperatures. These include melting of the great ice sheets on the continents of Antarctica and Greenland that now reflect light and heat away from the earth. When the ice melts what remains is dark earth that absorbs heat instead of reflecting it, known as the reverse albedo effect.

There are vast quantities of carbon and methane in organic plant matter tied up in the permafrost, the frozen ground, including in Alaska and Siberia.  As global warming turns the permafrost to slush as is being documented now, it will release the carbon and methane that has been trapped for millions of years.  

The world’s oceans comprise 71% of the Earth’s surface and absorb 93 % of the heat generated from human activities. God bless the oceans!  Without them the atmosphere would be 90 F degrees hotter, a climate that would be uninhabitable for most animal and plant life on land and in the seas.

The oceans also absorb 25% of the carbon from fossil fuels that are burned.  They serve as carbon “sinks.” That creates carbonic acid in seawater, inhibiting marine organisms, such as corals, from developing shells. When the seas reach their maximum capacity to absorb the excessive carbon in the atmosphere, they will become carbon “sources,” multiplying through this feed-back mechanism the amount of heat trapping carbon emitted, in this instance directly from the oceans. As the seas reach their heat absorbing limits, they will also become “sources” for heat released into the atmosphere. The oceans are home to phytoplankton, tiny floating plants, that through photosynthesis, produce most of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere, from 50 to 85 percent. Warming oceans and acidification, threaten the survival of life sustaining phytoplankton.

If we don’t limit global warming to 1.5 degress Celsius by dramatically and immediately reducing carbon emissions, within 11 years, we’ll be caught in an irreversible upward spiral of rising temperatures that will last thousands of years. The Earth will become unrecognizable and uninhabitable for most living things.

We cannot afford to wait until natural gas-burning electric generating plants or natural gas-burning vehicles live out their useful life of 20 or so years before we convert to renewable energy sources. “Decisions that decrease or increase emissions over the next few decades will set into motion the degree of impacts that will likely last throughout the rest of this century, with some impacts (such as sea level rise) lasting for thousands of years or even longer.”  U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment, 2018. The cost-efficient technology of renewable energy, especially in wind and photovoltaic already here. We must find the political will to begin an immediate conversion to renewables and leave natural gas where it belongs,  in the ground.


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