Global Warming Threat: New Studies Suggest Natural Gas Is “Dirtier” than Coal


As if on cue, a handful of recently released studies have found that fracking and the natural gas it extracts pose environmental dangers well beyond the issues currently being widely and heatedly discussed – not that radioactive waste water, contaminated wells and radium-laced fertilizer weren’t bad enough.

The takeaway, from studies like the one released this week from Cornell University, is that the “greenhouse gas footprint of shale (natural) gas can be as much as 20 percent greater than, and perhaps twice as high as, coal per unit of energy” –  in essence making natural gas a “dirtier” fuel than either oil or coal.

The finding is a huge blow to the pro-fracking, pro-natural gas movement in that it disproves the “cleaner source” argument – the central selling point of proponents. In an April 11 article, the New York Times reports:

…the problem, the studies suggest, is that planet-warming methane, the chief component of natural gas, is escaping into the atmosphere in far larger quantities than previously thought, with as much as 7.9 percent of it puffing out from shale gas wells, intentionally vented or flared, or seeping from loose pipe fittings along gas distribution lines. This offsets natural gas’s most important advantage as an energy source: it burns cleaner than other fossil fuels and releases lower carbon dioxide emissions.

The NYT report quotes the lead author of the Cornell study, ecologist Robert Howarth: “The old dogma of natural gas being better than coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions gets stated over and over without qualification.”

There’s no doubt that Professor Howarth’s findings have sent the natural gas industry and its champions scrambling. You can almost hear the industry spin machine lurching into action.

The new research is critical to national energy strategy because the Obama Administration continues to cling to an increasingly outdated policy that focuses on natural gas as a “cleaner” energy than coal and other sources. So far, the natural gas downside has been focused on threats like the radioactive pollutants produced by fracking, but now we find that it poses an even greater greenhouse problem than coal. That’s quite a jolt to the status quo, and there will be fallout.

These new studies put the Obama Administration – which has embraced, at least in theory, the idea of battling climate change – in a difficult political position. We will see how Obama and crew address the new findings, but it will certainly be hard to ignore an Ivy League study published in a well-respected, peer-reviewed journal.

The NYT goes on to note:

…natural gas is already the principal source of heat in half of American households. Advocates like the former oil tycoon T. Boone Pickins have also long sought to promote it as a substitute for coal in electricity generation or gasoline in a new generation of natural gas cars… [and] two weeks ago, President Obama included natural gas in his vision for America. Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman, said that the administration’s energy priorities were not about picking one energy source over another, but about diversifying the nation’s energy mix.

Translation? We have no real energy plan, no clue, not even a plan to create a plan. Reassured about where we’re heading?

In announcing the release of the Cornell study, one of the participating scientists takes a swipe at the federal government for its lack of relevant research and its lack of political will to, in any way, slight the energy industry. The scientist had this to say: “We do not intend for you to accept what we’ve reported on today as the definitive scientific study in regards to this question. It’s clearly not…what we’re hoping to do with this study is to stimulate the science that should have been done before. In my opinion, corporate business plans superseded national energy strategy.”

In context, these studies clearly illustrate just how little attention has been paid to energy-related pollution. We have relied too long on the crony system between government and industry that sways our regulatory policies. Notice how the “regulators” consistently understate the problems and impacts? It’s hard to miss.

We cannot rely on government to face the hard facts let alone bring them to the fore, so now we must move into another era where independent research takes on an increasingly significant public policy role. Big kudos to Cornell for leading the charge.

Here is the eye-opening Cornell University press release on the new study:

And here is the NYT report:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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