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.