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Sierra Daily

Jan 25, 2011

Trouble in Gasland

The natural-gas industry has fallen a long ways since environmentalists (including some here at the Sierra Club) were talking about it as a "bridge fuel" between dirty old coal and oil and the bright, shiny, but incompletely built out world of renewables. Natural gas is often said to produce 50 percent less greenhouse gas than coal; my own "Beyond Oil In 20 Years" in our current issue says that it "produces one-quarter less CO2 than diesel" (that judgment sourced from the Department of Energy).

Now comes bad news from the Environmental Protection Agency: According to Abrahm Lustgarten in ProPublica, the "Climate Benefits of Natural Gas May Be Overstated."

"The new EPA analysis doubles its previous estmates for the amount of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and is vented from gas wells, drastically changing the picture of the nation’s emissions that the agency painted as recently as April. Calculations for some gas-field emissions jumped by several hundred percent. Methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously reported. When all these emissions are counted, gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, or perhaps even less."

Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth posts an amazing short video clip compiled by the EPA, filmed with infrared light, in which plumes of methane are seen billowing out of natural-gas facilities:


In total, reports ProPublica, "[b]illions of cubic feet of climate-changing greenhouse gases--roughly equivalent of the annual emissions from 35 million automobiles--seep from loose pipe valves or are vented intentionally from gas production facilities into the atmosphere each year." The new analysis will also strengthen environmentalists complaints against hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," the drilling technique that spurred the current gas boom:

The EPA now reports that emissions from conventional hydraulic fracturing are 35 times higher than the agency had previously estimated. It also reports that emissions from the type of hydraulic fracturing being used in the nation’s bountiful new shale gas reserves, like the Marcellus, are almost 9,000 times higher than it had previously calculated.

Happily, arriving just in time is the Sierra Club's brand new Natural Gas Reform Campaign Director, Deborah Nardone! Sierra Daily wishes her luck in sorting it all out for us.

--Paul Rauber  

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