Coverage of natural gas, even in the most serious mainstream press, too often reads like it’s lifted from the fossil fuel industry playbook. “Natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil.” You’ve heard this so many times that it honestly just seems, well, natural.
An industry with profit on the line has effectively marketed natural gas as a clean, affordable fuel—even warm and fuzzy, forward-thinking, and environmentally friendly.
The point is, an industry with profit on the line has effectively marketed natural gas as a clean, affordable fuel—even warm and fuzzy, forward-thinking, and environmentally friendly. But natural gas has dirty secrets that news—and energy—consumers ought to hear.
Natural gas is a fossil fuel (lest we forget). The “burning cleaner” mantra is a red herring. As my colleague Tarika Powell has pointed out, natural gas is itself a greenhouse gas—without even needing to be burned. Natural gas releases half as much carbon dioxide as coal when combusted, but what matters for the climate is that methane, a big component of gas, is released into the air at every stage of its life, from well to pipeline to power plant. “In the US, the gas industry as a whole was responsible for more emissions than coal last year for the first time,” according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Of course, it’s not inaccurate to say natural gas burns cleaner. But it’s only a fraction of the story. Methane is the bulk of the story.
Natural gas is mostly methane (CH4), a super-potent greenhouse gas, which traps 86 times as much heat as CO2 over a 20-year period. And even over the course of a century it is still far more damaging than carbon dioxide. As NPR’s Nathan Rott described its impact over 100 years, “It can warm the atmosphere at nearly 30 times the rate of carbon dioxide.”
So, as Joe Romm at Think Progress explains, methane leaks erase any climate benefit from switching from coal-fired power to gas. He points to more than a dozen studies showing that even a small leakage rate can have a large climate impact.
And if you think your gas isn’t fracked, think again. Sightline’s Tarika Powell again sets the record straight, detailing that now it’s safe to say that all gas is in some part fracked, and in the Pacific Northwest, a majority of the gas used is fracked. Seventy percent of the gas produced in the US is fracked according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), and it is co-mingled in pipeline infrastructure with conventional gas. The Canadian gas that we import is now at least 50 percent fracked and that number is set to rise to 80 percent over the next decade. We should call it what it is.
But we’ve internalized the Big Oil branding. Natural gas is set apart from other fossil fuels. It’s described by how it burns, not necessarily by the ugly, dangerous way it’s extracted. In fact, sometimes it seems like reporters and energy commentators can barely say the words “natural gas” without also shoehorning in a bit about it being clean. Industry spokespeople say this stuff too—naturally—with little fact checking.
For example, Oil Change International’s report on emissions expected from a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline and export facility at Jordan Cove, Oregon, got some ink in US News and World Report (via Associated Press). The focus is on the downsides, but a quote from pipeline spokesperson Michael Hinrich is included—presumably for “balance”—with zero scrutiny:
“The project is putting Oregon on the path to supplying a cleaner energy future for our customers. Natural gas is cleaner burning, has fewer pollutants, is less expensive and more efficient than other fuels that are capable of meeting around-the-clock energy demand.”
Here’s CNBC energy reporter Tom DiChristopher: “Much of the new capacity is coming from natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal and is replacing coal because it’s cheaper.” We hear it again in an otherwise down-on-fossil-fuels Bloomberg Businessweek piece lamenting Trump’s climate decisions as bad for business and the climate: “The US is the world’s leading producer of natural gas (which burns cleaner than coal and oil) and is busy building export terminals to bring the fruits of fracking to overseas markets.” In a piece about “clean” C02 capture technology that runs on natural gas, NPR’s science desk correspondent Christopher Joyce unquestioningly repeats his guest’s assertion: “Natural gas is cheaper and cleaner, [Bill] Brown said, and there’s lots of it.”
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Many Cascadians are standing up against gas plants, from Oregon to British Columbia (Tarika Powell has calculated the likely greenhouse gas emissions associated with an LNG export facility in BC), and many communities across the continent are deep in local anti-fracking fights. Still, the average American may not readily make the connection from natural gas to methane, nor to fracking (and fracking is more often associated with water pollution and earthquakes than climate change). In fact, polling shows that Americans see natural gas as one option on a menu of climate-fighting, clean alternatives, even though they favor solar and wind more strongly.
It’s no wonder. Don’t forget who is pushing natural gas and what they tell us about it. Industry front groups are spinning natural gas as a climate solution. Exxon is the biggest natural gas producer in the US. Here’s what they claim:
“The shift toward natural gas will carry tremendous benefits for consumers and the environment. Natural gas is affordable, reliable, efficient and available. It is also the least carbon-intensive of the major energy sources, emitting up to 60 percent less CO2 emissions than coal when used for electricity generation.”
Chevron chimes in with more of the same, calling natural gas “environmentally friendly” and deploying the same selective presentation of facts:
“Natural gas is the cleanest-burning conventional fuel, producing lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions than the heavier hydrocarbon fuels, like coal and oil.”
Unfortunately agenda-setting leaders who know better (ahem, Obama, Bloomberg) have touted natural gas in just slightly less glowing terms. And yes, not long ago, well-meaning environmentalists did point to natural gas as an important “bridge fuel” in a transition off dirty energy to renewables. Most have moved on, seeing natural gas as more than a detour. It’s more like a roadblock, in direct competition with investments in clean, local renewable energy solutions like wind and solar.
Repeating the “burns cleaner” line while keeping mum about the rest—when the rest is the most important—is sloppy and dangerous, especially from the same outlets that know better, for example because they covered Obama’s methane rules just a few years ago—or again months ago when Congress voted, narrowly, to keep those rules in place.