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Ten years ago today: Natural gas could be as bad as oil and coal

A look back at when we started learning the truth about natural gas.

On April 16, 2010 (ten years ago at this time of writing), TreeHugger emeritus Michael Graham Richard wrote Because of Methane Leaks, Natural Gas Could be as Bad as Oil & Coal, our very first post suggesting that maybe natural gas wasn't the clean, wonderful “bridge fuel” that would reduce our CO2 emissions and fight climate change. In fact, Mike wrote, “The problem is that methane is a powerful greenhouse gas – much more so than CO2 – and the more natural gas you produce and distribute, the more of it will leak in the atmosphere.”

Readers were dismissive or outraged. “This reeks of bad science.” Or, from the American Gas Association, “Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, period. And, frankly, when looked at through the lens of total carbon emissions, meaning source to point of use, natural gas is unquestionably the lowest carbon emitter.”

In fact, it was much worse than we knew. Because of the rapid growth of fracking, more methane (which is what natural gas basically is) has been escaping into the atmosphere than ever before. Studies actually show that the effects of the leaking gas completely offset the reduced CO2 emissions from burning gas instead of burning coal.

Ten years ago, natural gas was a hot commodity; today it is a problem that so much comes out of the ground during hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for oil. The industry can't give it away, or they haven't the pipelines to ship it, so they vent it or flare it. According to Nichola Groom In Reuters,

Flaring, or deliberately burning gas produced as a byproduct to oil, can worsen climate change by releasing carbon dioxide. Venting releases unburned methane, which is many times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Oil drillers tend to flare or vent gas when they lack pipelines to move it to market, or prices are too low to make transporting it worthwhile. “You’ve got a real waste issue,” said Colin Leyden, a policy advocate for the Environmental Defense Fund, which tracks flaring. “And everyone should be concerned about that.”

Last year we quoted the Wall Street Journal on the amount of methane that was being lost or flared, and noted:

The numbers are staggering; the estimated 13 teragrams of gas lost each year are equivalent in carbon emissions to 37 billion gallons of gas burned, 79 million miles driven, and a very silly 41 trillion charges of your smart phone.

Even the gas companies know they have a problem now. Every year Enbridge, the biggest gas pipeline company in North America, sponsors the Green Building Festival in Toronto and promises gas from garbage until it gets hydrogenated. Even the gas companies recognize that they can't keep selling natural gas as green.

hydrogen train© Rene Frampe

Of course, they haven't given up. They are still building pipelines to LNG plants, hoping to ship all that gas to China – it is true that burning gas produces less particulate pollution than burning coal. They are still hopping on the hydrogen train because it's mostly made from natural gas.

But really, after ten years we have learned that natural gas is a bridge to nowhere.

A look back at when we started learning the truth about natural gas.