Journalism in the Public Interest


Climate Benefits of Natural Gas May Be Overstated

New emissions estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency cast doubt on the assumption that gas offers a quick and easy solution to climate change.

An antelope passes by a natural gas drilling rig south of Pinedale, Wyo. (Douglas C. Pizac/AP file photo)

10:36 a.m.: This post has been corrected.

The United States is poised to bet its energy future on natural gas as a clean, plentiful fuel that can supplant coal and oil. But new research by the Environmental Protection Agency—and a growing understanding of the pollution associated with the full “life cycle” of gas production—is casting doubt on the assumption that gas offers a quick and easy solution to climate change.

Advocates for natural gas routinely assert that it produces 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal and is a significant step toward a greener energy future. But those assumptions are based on emissions from the tailpipe or smokestack and don’t account for the methane and other pollution emitted when gas is extracted and piped to power plants and other customers.

The EPA’s new analysis doubles its previous estimates for the amount of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and is vented from gas wells, drastically changing the picture of the nation’s emissions that the agency painted as recently as April. Calculations for some gas-field emissions jumped by several hundred percent. Methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously reported.

When all these emissions are counted, gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, or perhaps even less.

Even accounting for the new analysis, natural gas—which also emits less toxic and particulate pollution—offers a significant environmental advantage. But the narrower the margins get, the weaker the political arguments become and the more power utilities flinch at investing billions to switch to a fuel that may someday lose the government’s long-term support.

Understanding exactly how much greenhouse gas pollution comes from drilling is especially important, because the Obama administration has signaled that gas production may be an island of common political ground in its never-ending march toward an energy bill. The administration and Congress are seeking not just a steady, independent supply of energy, but a fast and drastic reduction in the greenhouse gases associated with climate change.

Billions of cubic feet of climate-changing greenhouse gases—roughly the equivalent of the annual emissions from 35 million automobiles—seep from loose pipe valves or are vented intentionally from gas production facilities into the atmosphere each year, according to the EPA. Gas drilling emissions alone account for at least one-fifth of human-caused methane in the world’s atmosphere, the World Bank estimates, and as more natural gas is drilled, the EPA expects these emissions to increase dramatically.

When scientists evaluate the greenhouse gas emissions of energy sources over their full lifecycle and incorporate the methane emitted during production, the advantage of natural gas holds true only when it is burned in more modern and efficient plants.

But roughly half of the 1,600 gas-fired power plants in the United States operate at the lowest end of the efficiency spectrum. And even before the EPA sharply revised its data, these plants were only 32 percent cleaner than coal, according to a lifecycle analysis by Paulina Jaramillo, an energy expert and associate professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Now that the EPA has doubled its emissions estimates, the advantages are slimmer still. Based on the new numbers, the median gas-powered plant in the United States is just 40 percent cleaner than coal, according to calculations ProPublica made based on Jaramillo’s formulas. Those 800 inefficient plants offer only a 25 percent improvement.

Other scientists say the pollution gap between gas and coal could shrink even more. That’s in part because the primary pollutant from natural gas, methane, is far more potent than other greenhouse gases, and scientists are still trying to understand its effect on the climate—and because it continues to be difficult to measure exactly how much methane is being emitted.

In November the EPA announced new greenhouse gas reporting rules for the oil and gas industry. For the first time under the Clean Air Act, the nation’s guiding air quality law, thousands of small facilities will have to be counted in the pollution reporting inventory, a change that might also lead to higher measurements.

The natural gas industry, in the meantime, has pressed hard for subsidies and guarantees that would establish gas as an indispensible source of American energy and create a market for the vast new gas reserves discovered in recent years. The industry would like to see new power plants built to run on gas, automobile infrastructure developed to support gas vehicles and a slew of other ambitious plans that would commit the United States to a reliance on gas for decades to come.

But if it turns out that natural gas offers a more modest improvement over coal and oil, as the new EPA data begin to suggest, then billions of dollars of taxpayer and industry investment in new infrastructure, drilling and planning could be spent for limited gain.

“The problem is you build a gas plant for 40 years. That's a long bridge,” said James Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest power companies. Duke generates more than half of its electricity from coal, but Rogers has also been a vocal proponent of cap-and-trade legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Rogers worries that a blind jump to gas could leave the country dependent on yet another fossil resource, without stemming the rate of climate change.

“What if, with revelations around methane emissions, it turns out to be only a 10 or 20 percent reduction of carbon from coal? If that's true,” he said, “gas is not the panacea.”

The American Petroleum Institute said in an e-mailed response that federal offshore drilling rules are already cutting down on the emissions tallied by the government. Spokesmen for the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the natural gas lobbying groups Energy in Depth, American Clean Skies Foundation and America’s Natural Gas Alliance, which have all been pushing to expand the use of gas, declined to comment on the EPA’s new figures and what they mean for the comparison between gas and coal.

But industry groups point out that gas looks attractive compared to the alternatives.

Nuclear energy is less polluting than gas from a climate-changing perspective, but it is costly and viewed skeptically in the United States because of the dangers of disposing of radioactive waste. So-called “clean coal”—including underground carbon sequestration—could work, but the technology has repeatedly stalled, remains unproven, and is at least 15 years away. Renewable sources like wind and solar are being developed rapidly, but the energy is expensive and won’t provide a commanding supply of electricity for decades.

Gas, on the other hand, is plentiful, accessible and local.

Methane Is a Potent Climate Gas

Measuring the amount of natural gas that is leaking during drilling is one challenge. Getting a grip on how that gas—which is mostly methane—affects the environment, and what effect it will have on global warming, is another. And on that, some scientists still disagree.

Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, as well as methane, propane and lesser-known gases that also affect climate change. For the purposes of standardization, all these gases are described together using the unit Co2e, or carbon dioxide “equivalent.” But because each gas has a different potency, or “warming” effect on the atmosphere, a factor is applied to convert it to an equivalent of carbon dioxide.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas and among the more potent greenhouse gases, has far more of an effect on climate change than carbon dioxide. But determining the factor that should be applied to measure its relative warming affect is still being debated.

To crunch its numbers, the EPA calculated the average concentration of methane in the atmosphere over a 100-year period and determined that over that period methane is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Using that equation, a ton of methane emissions is the equivalent of 21 tons of carbon dioxide.

But some scientists argue that the impact of methane gas should be calculated over a shorter time period, because methane degrades quickly, and because gas drilling releases large quantities of methane into the atmosphere all at once, likely concentrating and amplifying the effect.

Robert Howarth, an environmental biology professor at Cornell University, used research from the United Nations to calculate that if methane’s potency were considered over 20 years rather than 100 years, it would be 72 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in terms of its warming potential.

Figured that way, the climate effect of methane from natural gas would quickly outpace the climate effect of carbon dioxide from burning coal. Howarth’s research is incomplete and has been criticized because at first he failed to figure in methane emissions from coal mining. But he said that after correcting his error, the emissions from coal barely changed, and the data still showed that the intensity of methane could erase the advantages of using natural gas.

“Even small leakages of natural gas to the atmosphere have very large consequences,” Howarth wrote in a March memorandum, which he says is a precursor to a more thorough study that could begin to scientifically answer these questions. “When the total emissions of greenhouse gases are considered … natural gas and coal from mountaintop removal probably have similar releases, and in fact natural gas may be worse in terms of consequences on global warming.”

Howarth says his latest calculations show that the type of shale gas drilling taking place in parts of Texas, New York and Pennsylvania leads to particularly high emissions and would likely be just as dirty as coal.

Environmental groups say factual data on how much methane is emitted from gas fields—and what the warming affect of that methane is—should be locked down before major policy decisions are made to shift the nation toward more reliance on gas.

“You can’t just assume away some of these sources as de minimus,” said Tom Singer, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council who focuses on emissions reporting in New Mexico. “You need to get a handle on them before you can make a determination.”

Less Pollution Means More Profit

The EPA tracks fugitive and vented methane emissions through a program called Natural Gas STAR and then works to get drilling companies to save money by stanching their leaks and selling the gas they capture for profit. It was a discrepancy in the Gas STAR data that prompted the EPA to sharply revise the government’s greenhouse gas statistics late last year.

According to Gas STAR’s most recent figures, at least 1.6 percent of all the natural gas produced in the United States each year, about 475 billion cubic feet, is assumed to be leaked or vented during production. But those numbers were reported before the EPA adjusted its greenhouse gas estimates, and they are expected to rise when the new estimates are plugged into the calculation. If companies could capture even the gas leaked in Gas STAR’s current estimates, it would be worth $2.1 billion a year at today’s prices and would cut the nation’s emissions by more than 2 percent right off the bat. Several studies show that maintaining and installing equipment to capture the emissions pays for itself within 24 months.

Gas STAR has seen some success in pushing companies to use these capture tools. The EPA’s 2010 greenhouse gas inventory, using 2008 data, shows that even though more gas is being produced from more wells, total emissions from that production have decreased by more than 26 percent since 1990, mostly due to the progress of Gas STAR. But while these figures demonstrate that Gas STAR is effective in lowering the annual rate of emissions, the EPA’s new figures essentially move the starting point, and, when recalculated, 2008 emissions are now understood to have been 53 percent higher than emissions in 1990.

That doesn’t mean the program isn’t working—it is. It simply means that the road to making reductions significant enough to affect the rate of climate change is much longer than expected.

The EPA now reports that emissions from conventional hydraulic fracturing are 35 times higher than the agency had previously estimated. It also reports that emissions from the type of hydraulic fracturing being used in the nation’s bountiful new shale gas reserves, like the Marcellus, are almost 9,000 times higher than it had previously calculated, a figure that begins to correspond with Robert Howarth’s research at Cornell.

Clean Enough to Count On?

Getting a solid estimate of the total lifecycle emissions from natural gas is critical not only to President Obama’s­­—and Congress’–decisions about the nation’s energy and climate strategy, but also to future planning for the nation’s utilities.

Even small changes in the lifecycle emissions figures for gas would eventually affect policy and incentives for the utility industry, and ultimately make a big difference in how gas stacks up against its alternatives.

Rogers, the Duke executive, says the country’s large promised reserves of natural gas must also hold up for gas to prove beneficial, in terms of both cost and climate. If domestic reserves turn out to be smaller than predicted, or the nation runs out of gas and turns to liquefied gas imported from overseas, then the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas would be almost equal to coal, Jaramillo pointed out in her 2007 lifecycle analysis, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. That’s because the additional processing and shipping of liquefied gas would put even more greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere.

“In the 60’s we put a needle in one arm—it was called oil,” Rogers said. “If the shale gas doesn't play out as predicted, and we build a lot of gas plants in this country, and we don't drill offshore, we're going to be putting the needle in the other arm and it's going to be called gas.”

The utilities are in a bind because they have to build new power plants to meet the nation’s demand for energy, while anticipating an as-yet-undefined set of federal climate and emissions regulations that they believe are inevitable. Do they build new gas-fired plants, which can cost $2 billion and take three years to bring online? Or do they wait for proven systems that can capture carbon from coal-fired plants and sequester it underground?

If carbon sequestration works, coal-based power emissions could drop by 90 percent, said Nick Akins, president of American Electric Power, the nation’s largest electric utility and the number-one emitter of greenhouse gas pollution. That suggests to Akins that natural gas may not be the solution to the nation’s energy needs, but rather the transitional fuel that bridges the gap to cleaner technologies.

"Going from a 100 percent CO2 emitter to a 50 percent solution when you could go beyond that is something we need to turn our attention to,” said Akins. “If there is a 90 percent solution for coal, and other forms like nuclear, and renewables, then obviously you want to push in that direction as well.”

Correction: The article originally misstated that methane, at least 21 times more potent than CO2, is the most potent of greenhouse gases. The article should have stated that it is among the more potent greenhouse gases.

“Now that the EPA has doubled its emissions estimates, the advantages are slimmer still. Based on the new numbers, the median gas-powered plant in the United States is just 40 percent cleaner than coal, according to calculations ProPublica made based on Jaramillo’s formulas.”

So the big story is that switching from coal to natural gas fired generators would only reduce CO2 emissions by 40% rather than 50% like had previously been thought?  C’mon ProPublica, I like your work, but this is a non-story.

Methane is not “the most potent of the greenhouse gases”.  See for a table of GHG CO2eq values, including several that are well above 10,000 times more potent than CO2 over a century.

That nit aside, this is an excellent ProPublica article, and it demonstrates just how complicated our energy and climate choices have become.  One can make much the same argument regarding switching from gasoline to CNG for vehicles, where you have a huge infrastructure investment that yields (at best) only a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions.

This helpful article adds to the importance of stanching gas leaks, but doesn’t detract from the importance of natural gas as a bridge to a lower-carbon energy mix, to my mind—as long as extraction is done responsibly, of course.

More coming on Dot Earth. The extent of unaccounted leakage was described here in 2009:

A Greenhouse Gas That Is Already a Commodity -

kathleen martincic

Jan. 25, 2011, 11:22 a.m.

Coal mines vent methane gas, too.  Does this figure into the above equation?  Plus, the mega strip mines on steroids that flatten whole mountains, destroying entire mature forested ecosystems, rob the planet of valuable CO2 absorbing abilities.  Not to mention headwater streams that are lost in longwall operations.  There is more to be considered than just greenhouse gas emissions at the smoke stacks, in my opinion.

This headline is damaging and these findings are totally IRRELEVANT to our Energy and Climate crises in the short term.

The only important facts, still, are:
1) NatGas is still WAY cleaner than coal or oil;
2) We have a Century’s supply of NatGas and/or methane readily available in the US and coastal waters WITHOUT having to resort to fracking;
3) With the millions of cars and trucks PLUS the demand for fertilizers and plastics, which account for 60% of oil imports, NatGas is the only way we can eliminate enormous amounts of CO2 and pollutants in the short term;
4) Conversion of the national fleet and plant will create hundreds of thousands of JOBS NOW;
5) Our money stays in THIS Country - putting a tourniquet on $700B in treasure outflow each year.
6) Conversion to NatGas will save thousands of our troops lives and limbs.

We all know that Solar, Wind, Geo, Fusion, etc. is the direction we need to head. But, we have miles to go before any of that has significant impact on the Energy or Climate crises.

NatGas can begin saving the US enormously within 1 year.

Brady Russell - Clean Water Action

Jan. 25, 2011, 1 p.m.

This is another really strong piece from ProPublica. It helped me to frame my thoughts around the overstated advantages of Gas. I really appreciate this reporting.

Unfortunately, the general public still buys this line that Gas is clean. It’s even on the buses here in Philadelphia. It’s going to take time for the facts to pierce these beliefs. The industry has really won the PR war on this point up to now.

Hey Tom Sherer.
“NatGas is still WAY cleaner than coal or oil”
You have to read the article before commenting!!

Todd Ackerman

Jan. 25, 2011, 1:47 p.m.

What did he miss, bfearn? The article states:

“When all these emissions are counted, gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, or perhaps even less. Even accounting for the new analysis, natural gas—which also emits less toxic and particulate pollution—offers a significant environmental advantage.”

I agree that natural gas, even with all the faults listed, is still cleaner than coal both for the atmosphere and for the rest of the environment.  However, even if the U.S. were to switch totally to gas from coal, the environmental effects will not disappear.  The coal will still be mined, it will just be exported as will its CO2 production.  Coal export to Asia is actually one of the few bright spots in our trade deficit problem.

On the other hand, there is huge potential for thorium nuclear to be our safest and most economical option for producing electricity, with the lowest total environmental footprint even when radioactive waste storage/disposal and proliferation issues are included in the equation.  Yet it remains largely excluded from mainstream discussion due to our acute national allergy to the word nuclear.

1. Never use wiki in terms of a “credited” source.
2. CH4 is a volatile organic compound. One must consider this when deciding to fuel the nation with CH4. Coal miners must work with curtains set up to trap the methane and keep it out of the clean air supply intake. Being that CH4 is readily volatile, do we really want underground pipes running through schools, hospitals, and daycares? Or, being released into the environment when we know CH4 is volatile? (as seen in underground mine explosions)

Tom Sherer is wrong on all counts.
1) The article states “When the total emissions of greenhouse gases are considered … natural gas and coal from mountaintop removal probably have similar releases, and in fact natural gas may be worse in terms of consequences on global warming.” Not mentioned, it is surely now more polluting than oil.
2) Fracking is what gas industry is now concentrating on to extract hard to reach shale deposits.  If they could get the gas more cheaply without it, they would.
3) It would be better to resort to conservation and avoidance of inorganic fertilizers and plastics if we are serious about affecting climate change.
4) This conversion would be a wasteful boondoggle because gas may not be as plentiful or carbon saving and could run out soon and become too expensive when carbon regulations are passed.  Those investments should be made in renewable energy now and not put off or displaced until gas has failed to be a bridge fuel.
5) A large percentage of gas holdings in this country have already been bought up by foreign countries and the profits will go abroad while the pollution effects will be borne at home.
6) Wind and solar would surely save more lives.  They don’t pollute.

Finally, Sherer is correct, “We all know that Solar, Wind, Geo, Fusion, etc. is the direction we need to head.” but incorrect about how far away that is.  We can do it all now if we decide to make that our policy.  We can expand wind and solar resource use as fast as building gas power plants and infrastructure.  Just saying we can’t doesn’t make it true.

See my 5 minute movie on YouTube: Puppetgas: and check out for the facts and what you can do to help.

Who runs CH4 through daycare facilities?

@Andy Revkin:  “as long as extraction is done responsibly, of course.”  In all seriousness:  What do you think are the odds of that?  How does it square with the record of the gas industry as it now exists?  How soon do you expect it will happen?  (And on the “how soon” front, how soon do you expect it given that, according to Lustgarten, the rate of progress under Gas STAR has been very slow?)

One other problem common to many commenters here, and to the national conversation on this issue as well:  We must distinguish between conventional and unconventional natural gas, mostly from shale.  Expansion of domestic production is premised on the availability of the latter, and as Lustgarten’s article points out, the EPA recently adjusted the GHG emissions estimates for shale gas by a factor of nearly 9,000.  (If you go to the EPA website where these figures originate, you’ll see that it’s a readjustment from 0.02 tons methane/well completion, to 177 tons/completion.) 

Now let’s say that Andy Revkin’s optimism is well-founded and we recapture or prevent 99% of that methane leakage.  We’d still be looking at a very large increase over previous estimates (from 0.02 to 1.77 tons, or 88.5 times greater), and one that greatly reduces or even eliminates the GHG advantage of gas over coal.  And here in the real world, where that near-total elimination of emissions is not even on the horizon, ramped-up shale gas production looks more like climate catastrophe than panacea.

At a minimum, these numbers would seem to counsel for much greater caution than shale gas proponents have shown thus far.  Wouldn’t it be wiser to make reliable determinations as to the actual greenhouse impact before investing billions (not to mention creating all the other devastation that shale production brings in its wake)?

this tells you nothing ahahah

The article lists “Methane” as one of the potential pollutants for natural gas… DOH, Natural Gas IS mostly methane. It, and several other gases (including propane, butane and ethane), are burned during the combustion cycle of natural gas.
Good grief!

Please pay attention.  It’s not about burning methane, it’s about leaking unburned methane, which makes it a pollutant.

Kevin A. McDonald

Jan. 25, 2011, 4:22 p.m.

It is a fossil fuel, like any other, and on a molecur level releases the same substances into the enviroment.

Mr. Lustgarten’s article is very carefully stated.  It is my belief that Prof. Howarth’s conclusions are nearly correct, and most important.  The combination of the pollution from the shale gas extraction process, combined with the infrastructure leakage in general, including the gas fired electric plants themselves, places the shale gas very close to the existing impact of coal and oil.

The estimates I have read concerning the cost of switching coal burning plants to gas, ranges near to $700 Billion.  When one combines this cost, with the current, huge, subsidies gas companies are given, the investment in shale gas extraction will be immense, and the benefits, if any, will be small.

Then, there is the question of “bridge fuel”, vs. “replacement fuel”, or “additional fuel”.  The Pickens Plan requests gas tax subsidies through 2028.  Industry says there is over 100 years of shale gas supply.  The bottom line, is that it is all speculation at this point.  What sane society invests its future on rampant speculation? 

A Marshall type plan must be put in place which would fund sustainable, renewable energy sources.  That infrastructure must be built, and supported with subsidies, not shale gas.  This is all just a scheme by the energy companies to continue their business as usual, except we now have the exceptionally polluting unconventional plays, in stead of the comparatively easy, “low hanging fruit” carbon energy sources of the second half of the 20th century.

That didn’t work!  It brought us to our current sorry state of affairs.  Why would the more polluting, unconventional plays be a solution?

Invest in the future, not in the pockets of the industry’s past.

Someone complained about using Wikipedia for a source.  OK, how about the IPCC report?

(And for the record, I used Wikipedia because I knew the values in question but wanted a source people could link to, and the IPCC site can be a pain in the neck to navigate for specific facts.)

I am the director of communications for the American Gas Association (AGA).  AGA represents 195 local energy utilities that deliver clean natural gas to homes and businesses throughout the United States.

Not sure if you have seen the new EPA report on emissions related to natural gas, but for those who are not familiar with the data under discussion the conclusion is misleading.

First and foremost, though, kudos to the EPA for looking at upstream emissions for comparing natural gas to other options.  The problem, however, is that the actual data used is limited and may even inflate methane emissions by several orders of magnitude.

The EPA and everyone else in the industry has been using “emission factors” developed long ago to estimate how much methane leaks from production wells, pipeline valves and the like.  It’s common knowledge that these emission factors were based on very limited field testing performed nearly 20 years ago, and that they are seriously in need of updating and refinement.  The EPA even addresses this issue of outdated data in its November 2010 Technical Support document.  However, without any support to back up the claim, the EPA then claims that emissions today may be higher than they were 20 years ago.

Not only is such a statement wholly unsupported by any data, it’s actually in opposition to recent findings.  EPA’s Natural Gas STAR program managers, fully aware of the problem with outdated information information, took steps about four years ago to launch a joint research project with energy industry trade groups to do new, more extensive field testing on modern natural gas systems to see what is really going on and to develop updated emission factors.

That work has already resulted in some new emission factors for natural gas distribution and transmission equipment, and other work is continuing this year and next.  The work so far shows that methane emissions are declining as natural gas systems become tighter as the result of new technology, equipment and procedures.

And let’s not forget that even using the old inflated emission factors, EPA estimates that natural gas is more efficient and lower emitting than other options.

Kevin Schmidt

Jan. 25, 2011, 6:01 p.m.

Strange how they only discuss fossil fuels, as if gas or coal were our only choices.

Biobutanol produced from algae has the following benefits: 

1. Inexpensive to produce. 
2. Can be produced with solar panels, which means the energy footprint is almost negligible. 
3. Can be produced on rooftops, so no farm land is necessary. 
4. Can be quickly produced continuously, so no expensive storage is necessary.
5. Both the fuel and the waste products are 100% biodegradable, so no toxic waste or environmental damage. 
6. Carbon neutral.
7. Zero pollution when burned. 

This is the future, the immediate future. Coal, natural gas, oil, and of course, nuclear power cannot compete with algae produced biobutanol, either economically, or environmentally !

Alan Holloway

Jan. 25, 2011, 6:03 p.m.

If natural gas reduces our dependency on being at the mercy of OPEC,  we should adopt it for all motor vehicles.

This is a classic case of manufacturing uncertainty.

The precautionary policy inferences to draw from this research is a go slow - or moratorium- on fracking.

It supports an even more accelerated rate of closing both gas and coal power plants and a massive investment in wind, solar, and other non-carbon renewables.

But instead of precaution, the coal power people will exploit this uncertainty to buy 5-10 more years for any decisions on coal (e.g. plant closings or retrofits).

Erik Schlenker-Goodrich

Jan. 25, 2011, 9:40 p.m.

@ Chris Hogan. I appreciate your comment, but you provide no basis for the assertion that “The problem, however, is that the actual data used is limited and may even inflate methane emissions by several orders of magnitude.”

I have read the EPA report and what it says is that emissions from oil & gas operations are, in several instances, wildly underestimated such that emissions estimates from this sector are actually double what has previously been reported in EPA’s U.S. GHG Inventory. And that the emissions factors used by EPA for its U.S. GHG Inventory are outdated, a product of the fact that those emissions factors were premised on limited, old data. For example, for well completions, EPA has been using an emissions factor of 3 Mcf per well drilled based on studies completed in the mid-90’s for, if I remember right, a single field. But EPA’s newest report—based on more recent, and geographically diverse fields—concludes that a more appropriate emissions factor is 9,175 Mcf per well. That’s not a typo.

Put simply, the more we understand about natural gas, the less “clean” it appears to be. And, fundamentally, despite the propaganda, natural gas is a dirty fossil fuel.

This is not to say that natural gas may not have a limited role as a “bridge” fuel to transition us to a clean energy economy reliant on real efficiency and renewables, primarily wind and solar. But, as the articles’ solid research demonstrates, there’s an enormous difference between a 100 year natural gas “bridge” and a shorter, 10-20 year “bridge” used to firm up renewables in the near term.

Let’s agree, at the least, on two things. First, that any climate and energy policies that invest in natural gas must be based on substantiated, informed data. But, second, that the uncertainties involved in natural gas do not obviate the immediate need to reduce methane emissions—reductions that help safeguard the climate, produce more royalties for our cash-strapped governments, more money for natural gas companies, more energy for consumers, and improve the efficacy of natural gas as a potential climate transition tool.

On that latter point, industry is notoriously averse to government oversight. But there are serious structural barriers that have prevented the full deployment of GHG reduction measures in the gas patch—barriers that are, in part, due to lax government oversight and the failure of our government and economy to put a price on GHG pollution. Let’s hope our decision-makers take these factors into account when evaluating and constructing wiser, saner climate and energy policies over the course of the next decade.

And let us not be so callous to forget that the production of natural gas has very real consequences to the lands, waters, and communities that will increasingly feel the stress of a deteriorating climate. There are very real lands, waters, and communities whose existence, right now, is sacrificed to the ever-hungry beast that is our fossil fuel economy.

Erik Schlenker-Goodrich
Director, Climate and Energy Program
Western Environmental Law Center

Hate to gang up on Tom Sherer,  BUT,  Natural gas pursuits will not save life and limb of ANY U.S. soldiers. They are over there because our multinational energy corporations want absolute control over ALL the worlds fossil energy.  Economic hitmen and Jackals failed, so force of war is the final solution, they will not be told NO. At home agendas, don’t alter the foreign conquest one whit. I must disagree somewhat with Allan Rubin on the foreign purchase of our energy sources. Our multinationals are doing a tradeoff,.... including foreign participation in order to garner bigger end games, ie: The hostile takeover of Rio Tinto International by BHP BILLITON, as reported in the London Finacial Times.June 6 2008. In order to get around regulators they had to find a way to dispose of Rio’s iron ore assets in Australia. With China controlling the steel industry, they had to negotiate deals on that front. The EU, Australia, Asia and U.S. were all players in the Regulatory clearance that was a precondition of BHP’s bid. A BHP/RIO TINTO (flagship of the Rothschilds) merger is staggering. According to EPA records,  BHP BILLITON, as of 1991, was already claiming the distinction of being the worlds largest diversified extraction company in the world. According to Marius Kloppers, chief exec of BHP BILLITON,This deal is characterized as, “not 1 + 1 = 3 but,  2+1=5. Many deals are cut in back rooms, but one can be sure the U.S. corporations have the upper hand. The money does go offshore… avoid accountability, and for financing even bigger and better secret ops.

To Mr. Revkin:

It would be bad enough to put up with the many dangers associated with shale gas extraction if the fuel being produced were truly “green” and if that fuel were an actual long-term answer to our nation’s energy problems. To put our health, water, air, homes, forests, and farmland at risk for a short-term “bridge” fuel that may not present any significant greenhouse-gas advantage over other fossil fuels is utterly absurd….and immoral.

The money that would have to be spent to extract significant amounts of shale gas, build the accompanying infrastructure, and attempt to remedy all of the accompanying damage to the environment and human health would be much better spent on energy conservation and renewable energy sources, both of which offer real, long-term solutions to our problems.

Please do not imagine that shale gas wells are sited out in a field somewhere far from water sources and homes. I have recently been talking with someone in PA who is very upset because a shale gas well is planned for a site just a few hundred feet from her door—this is not an uncommon occurrence.

With all due respect, if you think shale gas is the answer, then I would encourage you to take up full-time residence in a shale gas extraction region: I am sure you will be able to find someone currently living on the gas field who would be very happy to sell you their house. In fact, you may be able to purchase a house for very little indeed, provided you don’t mind relying on bottled water.

In this calculation of shale gas has the driving around of trucks to bring the hydrofracking fluid to the well been included?  One hydrofracking of a shale gas well requires up to 5 million gallons of water and a truck hold about 6,000 gallons so that amounts to about 500 truck trips one way - from possibly far away. Wells are fracked more than once.

Has the energy to build the holding tanks with heavy equipment, the plateform, the gravel mines dug to produce the sand used in the hydrofracking, - and the plastic that is used to coat the sand , the pumping of the fluid , the building of all the roads—

all that requires belching out of carbon dioxide… it matters not that this comes from gasoline or diesel, the CO2 that is belched out is part of processing the natural gas.

Also, Calvin Tillman, mayor of Dish Texas has reported that industry was reluctant to capture fugitive gases because it would only pay after 3 years and he recommends that industry needs to be regulated to do this process.  The industry could be influenced by the fact that these errant gases are not visible to the public unless one visualized the compressors and processors with infrared - then the gas is evident according to Mr Tillman who has experienced this in his home town with growing air pollution, especially unhealthy if it contains hydrogen sulfide that causes asthma in children.

Should the greenhouse gases caused by treating the illnesses and hospitalization caused by pollution also be factored?

The carbon dioxide is 380 ppm now and we could be reaching the tipping point above 400 ppm and in Australia with the flooding—people are starting to think that climate change is moving forward—so we need to make the right moves soon—including oldfashioned conservation and simply scaling back on any use of energy and even population control of humans and not plan for more than 20 years of an obviously polluting process.

For those who still argue that we are using up the fossil fuel from OPEC—I think it is more like getting it from Canada and we are actually exporting the shalegas now.

In the future when we have wind and solar, we really will need the natural gas as a true bridge energy because you cannot shut nuclear on and off or a electric plant on/off but a gas can be controlled with a spigot when the sun does not shine or the wind does not blow.  However, if we use up the gas now to export it, we will not have it for that real bridge later.

Lastly, we are constantly talking about not producing a deficit for our children—why are we so eager to pump out the shale gas now—it can only be done once. Maybe we should do it only slowly and learn from our mistakes.

There is little doubt that the hype about hydrofracking and natural gas as a bridge fuel is a well planned effort by Big Oil to remain dominant and to discourage the investment of time and money that will be required to implement a true alternative to fossil fuel.

I am NOT talking about unreliable, weak and diffuse wind or solar - there is a good reason why BP, Chevron, Shell, and ExxonMobil spend so much of their advertising budget TALKING about those alternatives. None of them threaten their cash flow from selling oil, natural gas and coal. (By the way, natural gas comes out of essentially the same wells drilled and owned by the same companies as other forms of petroleum do.)

The real alternative to burning hydrocarbons for heat is to fission uranium, thorium and plutonium.

Those people who say that nuclear fission does not reduce oil dependence need to understand a few things about the energy market. Before nuclear, the US produced about 17% of its electricity by burning oil. That portion is approaching zero today, but ONLY because fission captured 20% of the market in about 20 years. France, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were also strongly dependent upon oil for electrical power until they built their current nuclear fleets. Today, the UAE, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are working feverishly to build the infrastructure that they need to replace oil and gas in electrical power plants with nuclear fission.

The US has a fleet of aircraft carriers and a fleet of submarines that consume no oil at all for propulsion or electricity - 40 years ago, the US Navy was the world’s single largest customer for the oil industry. There is no technical reason why nuclear fission cannot replace oil as the propulsion source for commercial shipping - it has a 50 year track record of success in ship propulsion.

According to the Energy Information Agency, the US still burns about a 3.8 billion gallons per year of heating oil; I live in an all electric home, so I know from direct personal experience that electricity can replace oil in heating. (

The US locomotive fleet burns another 3.8 billion galls of oil per year, but we have known how to run wires to trains for more than 100 years. (

Fission is obviously a direct competitor with burning natural gas in electric power plants. It is not just a little bit less polluting; the best available studies indicate that the TOTAL lifecycle emissions from a nuclear power plant amount to about 7-13 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour compared to 600 grams for natural gas, 850 grams for oil and about 1000 grams for coal. Nuclear fission is essentially tied with wind turbines, but fission plants can run as many as 8760 hours per year at full power. (17 of the 100 nuclear plants in the US produced 100% or more of their rated power for 2010.)

When I hear anyone talk about gas as a bridge to a renewable utopia, I suspect I am listening to a natural gas salesman who knows full well that the utopia does not exist. I suspect the speaker of working to maintain the customer base of fossil fuel addicts by not letting them understand that there is a real alternative to burning hydrocarbons for heat.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

What is missing from this and most other discussions is the cause and effect relationship of the various greenhouse gases and the global warming/climate change issues.  We really don’t know if cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions with appreciably change the climate.  There is just too much assumption and conjecture in the science.  However, we do not that methane, coal, oil, wind, solar, hydro, etc. are all finite.  Consumption of resources that don’t renew as quickly as we consume them is a path designed to cause a calamity just as continued growth of the demand for all these resources is doomed to result in a calamity.  At some time we have to recognize we are finite and the faster we consume the quicker we reach calamity.

A timely invitation on Feb 4, 2011 can also be seen on line AFTER Feb 4:

bringing together faculty, students, and practitioners whose work centers on, or involves systems

Date:  Friday, February 4, 2011
Time:  12:15 p.m.
Location:  253 Rhodes Hall

Speaker:  Mark Z. Jacobson
          Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
          Stanford University

Title:  Powering the World with Wind, Water, and Sun

Abstract:  This talk discusses a plan to power 100% of the worlds energy for all purposes from wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) within the next 20-40 years. The study starts by reviewing and ranking major proposed energy-related solutions to global warming, air pollution mortality, and energy security while considering other impacts of the proposed solutions, such as on water supply, land use, resource availability, reliability, wildlife, and catastrophic risk. It then evaluates a scenario for powering the world on the energy options determined to be the best while considering future energy demand, the number of each device required, land and ocean areas required, materials required, the ability of WWS resources to match demand, transmission requirements, costs, and policies needed. The study concludes that powering the world with existing wind, water, and solar technologies, which are found to be the best when all factors are considered, is technically feasible but politically challenging. Relevant papers can be found at .

Bio:  Jacobson is Director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. He is also a Courtesy Professor of Energy Resources Engineering, Senior Fellow of the Woods Institute for the Environment, and Senior Fellow of the Precourt Institute for Energy. He received a B.S. in Civil Engineering with distinction, an A.B. in Economics with distinction, and an M.S. in Environmental Engineering from Stanford University, in 1988. He received an M.S. in Atmospheric Sciences in 1991 and a PhD in Atmospheric Sciences in 1994 from UCLA and has been on the faculty at Stanford since 1994. His work relates to the development and application of numerical models to understand better the effects of energy systems and vehicles on climate and air pollution and the analysis of renewable energy resources.

Can’t make it in person? View online at: .

Lecture links may not be active until just before the beginning of the lecture.

Someone needs to catch up. Al Gore has finally admitted the whole Global Warming scenario was nothing but a big ruse. Of course this comes after he’s made his millions from the rhetoric he spewed out for decades.

Kevin Schmidt

Jan. 26, 2011, 1:44 p.m.

Tom B, Please stop lying about Al Gore. He never said that because it is simply not true.

Credible climate scientists around the world came to consensus years ago, and they agree that Global Warming is real and is caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of rain forests.

Kevin Schmidt

Jan. 26, 2011, 1:53 p.m.

Global Warming is real. Here is the undeniable proof:

Combined global land and ocean annual surface temperatures for 2010 tied with 2005 as the warmest such period on record…

In the contiguous United States, 2010 was the 14th consecutive year with an annual temperature above the long-term average. Since 1895, the temperature across the nation has increased at an average rate of approximately 0.12 F per decade.

Globally, the ten hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998…

...on average, when looking at the entire world, the long term trend shows an unmistakable increase in global surface temperatures, in a way that is likely to dramatically alter the planet.

Jan. 26, 2011, 2:53 p.m.

A convincing arguement for global warming is the Keeping Curve—look it up in Wiki

David Keeling a scientist tested the atmospheric CO2 level ever since around 1960 and later was replaced by his son doing this now for decades.

The curve of CO2 in the atmosphere waves around with tiny waves during each season but the overall trend is always UP UP and AWAY!!!!

This upward curve took off with industrialization in the late 19th century—

Earth was in balance:  animals exhale CO2 and plants use or sequester CO2 as a building block as they use chlorophyl to convert the sun’s energy rays into cellulose, wood, sugar,food for animals, as well as fossil fuel like oil and gas and coal all of them were plants and animals who ate plants and/or animals at one time.

Trouble is anthropomorphic—due to the influence of mankind who invented combustion machine:  the machine belches out CO2 but the machine does not do what a ordinary blade of grass does: convert the suns energy along with CO2 into a energy fuel. The machines have tipped the balance on the planet because the humans love machines- flying in jets gets humans around so slick and now we even fly around the food we eat etc.and we use machines to dig up the topsoil and stop the plants from living as we like mahogany tables more than mahogany wood in the rain forest.

So that is why the Keeling curve is on the upswing due to machines and Dr Hanson of the Goddard Space center predicts we will be getting into weird feedback systems to be unable to scale back the global warming that has taken off with the CO2 blanket around the globe.

Others say that sun spots cause global warming—no- that trend is all over the map and not on a steady rise as is quite clear—we now have animals and plants and also machines tipping the balance in only one direction: more CO2 .

Scientists are not debating the conclusions— oil and gas companies are the climate change deniers because they want to rake in profits from fossil fuels. Like the tobacco industry was trying to persuade the folks that cigarettes do not cause cancer and trying to hide scientific facts from the public for years.

thank you for this discussion.

Carlos Briones

Jan. 26, 2011, 3:51 p.m.

The Cornell researchers ignore the methane desorption that occurs when coal is interrupted from its home in the ground.  Methane is released every time coal is disturbed:
-initial mining disruption
-loading on to trains
-vibrations occurring during transport
-unloading from trains
-conveying to on-site storage
-conveying to the furnace

Herbert and Marion Sandler (the owners of ProPublica) appear to be willing to fund any bogus controversy with that undermines the development of shale gas.  Their mouthpiece (Lustgarten) seems content to float “could be” or “might be” controversies – even when the facts don’t support his thesis. 

The real controversy is -why would a family that made billions destroying America’s economy feel compelled to undermine shale gas development?  Is it to support overseas LNG (see Soros Papua New Guinea)?  Is it to help Russian interests maintain pipeline dominance over Western Europe?

Is it really a surprise that Cornell (not exactly an institution known for petroleum engineering)researchers are trying to undermine private industry in their bucolic paradise while local farm owners are being slaughtered (figuratively) by New York’s oppressive property and income taxes?

A less sensational, but more accurate title might be “Pipeline infrastructure needs to be updated to keep pace with modern natural gas production”.

C’mon propublica - you can do better than this.

For those of you who still support the mad dash for natural gas in this country, I suggest that you buy property that has a gas well on it, drink and bathe in the contaminated water and breath the toxic fumes created by hydraulic fracturing.  Oh, that’s right, it’s o.k. as long as its not in YOUR backyard, right?

Why aren’t we all demanding renewable energy development instead of allowing our government to continue to subsidize the oil and gas industry and pollute our lives?  I’m sick to death of profits before people in this country.

Where can we read the article’s source material?

why are the asphalt roads near asylum, pa and near the susquehanna river being pummeled into gravel roads by heavy water trucks?

talk about an unexpected unpleasant bumpy ride.


Pro Publica received the Pulitzer prize in 2010 for investigative journalism and many other prizes including some given to Abrahm Lustgarten right here

Al Gore was a devoted politician for many years and received the Nobel prize and I doubt that he get motivated to just plain rack up profits like some industry hacks might….

Cornell and Stanford are renowned.

To oppose global warming and natural gas by attacking these people and institutions—- these folks must be out of gas( no pun intended) and can’t think of anything else but ad hominid attacks

These types of articles are useful, but they avoid the real issues. It is not about cleaner or less clean energy sources. It is about how we need to immediately change our lifestyles and infrastructure to greatly reduce energy consumption, as soon as possible. Take a look at a book such as What We Leave Behind, by Derrick Jensen. This book looks at the larger issues that articles such as this one will never deal with.

@Karl Stevens:

Feel free to conserve as much as you like. However, keep your judgements about the way that the rest of us choose to live to yourself. As long as we are careful about the kind of electricity that we use and work hard to choose sources that have a minimal effect on the environment, I prefer to use the model once famously proposed by Jay Leno in his Doritos commercials.

“Use all you want. We’ll make more.”

It is austerity that kept my parents living in a Depression for a decade. Lack of markets and sales because everyone got really good at not using anything they did not need led to an awful lot of suffering, ill health and poverty. I, for one, see no reason to go there again.

We have an amazing source of reliable heat that produces no waste that has to be dumped into the environment. We keep it all closely controlled and monitored, stored in a safe place for the use of future generations.

The main reason that you have been taught to fear the use of that fission power is that it would severely disrupt the profitability of selling coal, natural gas and oil.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

If I belived man could shift the earth’s climate, I’d be really worried. 

Just because there is an apparent correlation between variables, that does not imply a cause-and-effect conclusion.

I suggest you go live in the Australian outback and leave this country alone.

@Frank Trades:

Why are you skeptical about the ability of 6 billion people dumping 30 billion tons of stuff into the atmosphere every year for decades to make some alterations in the climate?

Have you never seen the impact that humans can make on the air we breathe when you fly into the East Coast from the Atlantic Ocean or into China from the Pacific?

Are you listening to the hydrocarbon industry?

Nancy E. Roth

Jan. 27, 2011, 9:40 a.m.

I commend this carefully researched ProPublica article about natural gas, but wonder why the author (and editor) did not extend the same care to what he said about nuclear (fission, not 50-years-to-commercial-application fusion). It’s jarring in such an otherwise cogent presentation, based on facts, and nothing but facts.

Here is the sentence:

“Nuclear energy is less polluting than gas from a climate-changing perspective, but it is costly and viewed skeptically in the United States because of the dangers of disposing of radioactive waste. “

“Costly”: Compared to what, per unit of energy produced?
“Dangers”: Which dangers, and how do they compare to the risks of alternatives?
“Radioactive Waste”: Not waste at all but an important energy resource for the future, which can meanwhile be safely isolated and stored.

Oh yeah, and “viewed skeptically”: Who views it skeptically, please, especially if it’s put on a level playing field with the alternatives?

- is the climate change perspective the most critical urgent issue?  Some warn that climate change beyond 400 ppm atmospheric CO2 is uncharted territory leading to mass extinction of species and a life on earth that we cannot imagine and due to the feedback mechanism pouring out more instability and no methods to stop it once it is in full swing.  That is why planning on massive fossil fuel into the future is unacceptable and it has nothing to do with it being cheap or not cheap.

Under these circumstances, nuclear might be grabbed as an option- nuclear waste is not imminent but the lag time for nuclear is also decades.

Maybe we better include lifestyle in the discussion -

Main point about lifestyle it is NOT about how dreadful conservation is—quite the opposite—it is fun, stimulating and affirmative of life—that is what we need to get across—but too often the Media ( and corporations)  is sold out to buy crap and sell ignorant programing and mute the communities themselves getting to know each other and organizing…. call up the FCC and change the great tool—the TV.

@Rod Adams: Have an open mind. Read the book What We Leave Behind. It’s among the most powerful of books that deal with value systems, denial, ego, hubris, technoworship, and the refusal of overconsuming people to scale back their killing of the earth so that all creatures, including humans, will better flourish.

The author here fails to distinguish between energy and capacity value when discussing wind energy.  Capacity value is basically electrical energy x the ability to produce it in steady streams or in response to changes in demand.  Wind, as it is sold into grids, offers little of either feature.

WRT gas, wind energy relies on gas capacity entanglement.  For a wind energy facility that produces 30% of its nameplate rating over time, 70% of its rating must come from gas, coal or hydro capacity if all of the wind energy is to be consumed and used to replace capacity resources like coal.  For various reasons, gas is the logical choice in most of the US as wind’s codependent assistant.

GAS PLANTS BURN LESS EFFICIENTLY WHEN ENTANGLED WITH WIND ENERGY.  Working through the numbers, then, in comparing a “gas only” substitute for coal or a “gas+wind+transmission” substitute for coal, the net savings from wind dwindle, and costs per unit of emission avoidance “necessarily skyrocket.”

@Karl Stevens - I have an open and inquiring mind. However, after about 40 years of reading at least one book per week (ever since the 4th grade), I am pretty sure that one book will not change my way of thinking or my observations of reality.

I have a pretty fair amount of experience with a large number of people. I am pretty sure that your source is not terribly reliable.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

More »

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