Home Energy and Environment New Study by Cornell: Time to Reassess Natural Gas as “Clean?”

New Study by Cornell: Time to Reassess Natural Gas as “Clean?”


Cross-posted from Scaling Green

There’s a great deal of buzz right now over a new study by Cornell professors on the topic of natural gas’ environmental impact.  Specifically, the Cornell study calls into question the status of natural gas as a supposedly clean-burning alternative to coal, potentially a “bridge fuel” between oil and coal on the one hand, and clean energy on the other.  The problem is this:

While natural gas has been touted as a clean-burning fuel that produces less carbon dioxide than coal, ecologist Robert Howarth warns that we should be more concerned about methane leaking into the atmosphere during hydraulic fracturing.

Natural gas is mostly methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas, especially in the short term, with 105 times more warming impact, pound for pound, than carbon dioxide (CO2), Howarth said, adding that even small leaks make a big difference. He estimated that as much as 8 percent of the methane in shale gas leaks into the air during the lifetime of a hydraulic shale gas well — up to twice what escapes from conventional gas production.

“The take-home message of our study is that if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil,” Howarth said. “We are not advocating for more coal or oil, but rather to move to a truly green, renewable future as quickly as possible. We need to look at the true environmental consequences of shale gas.”

Given these findings, several stark questions arise. First, as Brendan DeMelle notes at DeSmog Blog, “the widely-held perception that gas is the ‘cleaner’ darling of the fossil fuel trio is a myth.” Second, if this is true, then the Obama administration’s inclusion of natural gas as part of its “clean” energy mix might be badly mistaken. Finally, if natural gas is no better than coal or oil in terms of its greenhouse gas implications, not to mention its other adverse environmental impacts,  then the concept of using gas as a “bridge fuel” “to a clean-energy future” appears to be badly mistaken.

The bottom line is clear: if natural gas isn’t clean, in fact if it’s worse than oil or coal from an environmental perspective, then all the more reason to just skip the “bridge” and go right to the solution – clean energy sources like wind, solar, and efficiency.

  • Elaine in Roanoke

    Logic demands that we start with the most easily attainable goals: energy efficiency, more mass transportation in heavily traveled corridors, off-shore wind energy, solar, etc.

    Fracking holds the potential for terrible damage, as well, to the water table through the pollution caused by the toxic chemicals used to break loose the natural gas in shale deposits.

  • NWVirginian

    Government can be a powerful force. I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to pound the drum. We simply MUST have a national RPS.  The Virginia General Assembly AND the SCC just don’t understand the issue. The Federal government must get involved.

    The great thing is that Dominion customers can make a definite and positive impact by signing up for the Dominion Green Power program. By actively choosing to buy 100% renewable energy you can make the choice yourself to go to renewables without waiting for RPS mandates and other policy fixes or for the price of renewables to fall far enough to be a competitive financial option for investor owned utilities. The cost is an extra 1.5 cents per kwh – or about $15 for the average household.

    Whatever you may think of Dominion – this program is a great one.


  • JohnMorrill

    Natural gas was never “clean” in the same way that efficiency and renewables are.  The Obama Administration’s characterization as nuclear and gas as clean is just posturing.

    The methane seepage from fracking is something that can and should be addressed and controlled, just like fracking itself. I don’t think we are anywhere near the environmental review and reckoning of this harvesting that we should be.

    That said, there’s no point in demonizing natural gas per se. There are multiple sources of natural gas, and ultimately how clean it is depends in large part on how well it is used. In fact our greatest losses, and the impact of all energy sources, is driven by how poorly we use them. If you burn it for power, capture and use the ‘waste’ heat for other purposes (and high-quality heat can be used to drive cooling via absorption chillers).

    We cannot transition to a clean energy future instantaneously.  We can transition quickly if there are smart investments in combined heat & power and district energy, in addition to world-class energy efficiency, but ‘quickly’ is still relative.

  • kindler

    I’ve long wondered if natural gas, being mostly composed of methane, could cause more climate change problems than advertised.

    The solution — while we should be funding billions of dollars more of such studies — is not to avoid gas but to avoid hype about it being “clean”. I would point to Metrobuses that use that term on the side of the bus. No, let’s leave the marketing to industry, not public agencies.