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World Energy Day is a good day to talk about methane

It is time we stopped cooking and heating with methane, a climate problem from well to stove.

There is a funny thing about methane.

It is a serious greenhouse gas, 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. It doesn't hang around in the atmosphere nearly as long as CO2, only about ten years, but the next ten years matter very much, and more methane is leaking into the atmosphere than ever before, thanks to the explosion of fracking.

According to Anthony J. Marchese and Dan Zimmerle, the U.S. oil and gas industry is leaking 13 million metric tons of methane each year – and it may get worse. The Trump administration is trying to roll back Obama-era rules limiting leaks. EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler says this will “remove unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry.”

Methane is a recognized problem, whether it comes from cow burps, rotting landfills or agriculture, but the oil and gas industries are the biggest source, and they are just pumping out more and more of it.

Natural gas productionEnergy Information Agency/Public Domain

But the funny thing about methane, this powerful greenhouse gas, is that when it is cleaned up a bit and put into a yellow pipe and delivered to your house, it somehow magically becomes something called “natural” gas. And every TreeHugger likes things that are natural. Whereas the reality is that methane is natural gas and natural gas is roughly 90 percent methane, plus a bit of ethane, propane, butane and an odorant, a smell that is added so that you know it's there.

It got called “natural” gas to separate it from “town” gas, which was made by cooking the methane out of coal, although the American Public Gas Association confuses the issue by calling that “manufactured natural gas.” But wherever it comes from, it's methane.

And a lot of it is leaking before it gets to your stove or water heater. Marchese and Zimmerle write:

That natural gas that you burn when you whip up a batch of pancakes may have traveled 1,000 miles or more as it wended through this complicated network. Along the way, there were ample opportunities for some of it to leak out into the atmosphere.

Natural gas leaks can be accidental, caused by malfunctioning equipment, but a lot of natural gas is also released intentionally to perform process operations such as opening and closing valves. In addition, the tens of thousands of compressors that increase the pressure and pump the gas along through the network are powered by engines that burn natural gas and their exhaust contains some unburned natural gas.

A kiss for a gas cookThe Gas Council/Promo image

I wonder if people would feel as good about burning so-called “natural” gas if it was actually called methane, if there would be a kiss for a methane cook, and they knew that it was a greenhouse gas causing problems before it is even burned – and then, in your house and on your stove, was turned into a combination of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter. It sounds much worse when we say there are piles of peer reviewed research about how bad cooking with methane is for your health. Who would consider doing that?

The methane industry often says that heating and cooking with methane is cleaner than using electricity, which is often made with dirtier fuels, but every year, the electric grid gets cleaner with the switch away from coal and the increase in renewables. Cooking and heating with methane is always going to be a problem, from the time it is pumped out of the ground to the leaks out of the pumps and pipes that bring it to your home, to the products of combustion that come off your stove or go up your chimney.

There is nothing natural about natural gas these days. It is nothing but methane and it's time to stop putting methane stoves, furnaces and water heaters in our homes. It's time to ban new installations, as they are doing in cities like Berkeley and San Jose, California. Methane is a problem, from source to stovetop.

It is time we stopped cooking and heating with methane, a climate problem from source to stovetop.