Public positions on natural gas are strongly influenced by interpretations of the science on fugitive methane emissions. These vary significantly. The self-identified anti-natural gas wing includes professors like Robert Howarth and popular media figures like filmmaker Josh Fox. Other scholars, such as Cornell’s Lawrence Cathles and Council on Foreign Relations’s Michael Levi, have essentially concluded that fugitive methane is mostly a red herring in the coal-versus-gas conversation, and that natural gas can be a suitable “bridge fuel” in power-sector decarbonization. Other institutions like the Environmental Defense Fund concede that natural gas can be an “exit ramp” toward a clean energy future, but insist that fugitive methane must be tightly regulated to ensure that a coal-to-gas transition provides a warming benefit.
This post summarizes the existing literature on natural gas’s climate impact and the available data on methane leakage. While fugitive methane gets most of the press, it appears that other factors – like power plant efficiency and longevity of power plant operations – play a more significant role in determining natural gas’s potential as a bridge fuel.
A Look at the Literature
How did methane leakage become such a divisive subject? A review of the scientific literature shows that the discourse around fugitive methane has centered around two main controversies.
First is methodology. Comparisons of coal and gas for power generation depend crucially on factors like atmospheric residence of the greenhouse gases, the efficiency of power generation, and the availability of zero-carbon technologies to complement or displace gas in the future. These factors are often overlooked in favor of simple molecule-versus-molecule comparisons of greenhouse gases.
Second is the data. Some papers have used assumptions about leakage rates that significantly exceed leakage measurements in the real world. Various accounts estimate methane emissions from natural gas systems as high as 7 to 9 percent, while a growing literature shows they are more likely in the range of 1 to 4 percent.Read the whole article by clicking here.
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