Journalism in the Public Interest

More Reasons to Question Whether Gas Is Cleaner Than Coal

Evidence continues to mount saying that natural gas is not be as clean as we like to think.


An drilling rig Ray, N.D. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the main advantages of natural gas is that it is supposed to be far cleaner than oil or coal. Right now Congress is even considering a T. Boone Pickens-inspired bill aimed at converting the nation's truck fleet to run on natural gas. If it's passed, it will be in large part on the assumption that such a move will help the nation reduce climate-changing greenhouse gases.

But evidence continues to mount that natural gas is not as clean as we like to think.

In January, a ProPublica investigation found that large amounts of "fugitive" emissions were left out of common comparisons between coal and gas and that if these emissions were counted the advantages of natural gas dwindled. Our report found that the Environmental Protection Agency's emissions estimates from hydraulic fracturing in shale formations were 9,000 times higher than the agency had previously estimated. We also quoted Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor, saying that he would soon release research that showed that the emissions from gas were even worse.

More details of Howarth's research, which is reportedly scheduled to be published in the journal Climatic Change, were released by The Hill and The New York Times this week. Howarth's conclusion -- that shale gas production is actually far dirtier than coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions -- is attracting national attention.

Howarth's findings are based in part on the EPA's revelation that far more gas escapes into the atmosphere in production fields than was previously known, and on a mathematical tweaking of the intensity of methane gas' effect on the atmosphere. Howarth, whose figures for total emissions exceed even the EPA's revised estimates, calculates the impact of methane in the atmosphere over a 20-year period, saying the urgent need to address short-term climate change justifies that calculation. Over 20 years, methane is considered 72 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in its effects on climate change. Using that approach, Howarth concludes that gas may be between 20 and 100 percent dirtier than coal.

The EPA uses a different factor, calculating methane's effect on the atmosphere over 100 years, in part because the gas degrades over time. Using the 100-year time frame, methane's potency is diminished by about one third. ProPublica used this calculation in January and determined that in some cases -- where an old and inefficient power plant was used to burn the gas, for example -- natural gas may hold a 25 percent advantage over coal throughout its lifecycle, far less than the 50 percent advantage generally touted.

Howarth's calculations erase even that small advantage though. When he used the 100-year measure, he concluded that the greenhouse gas emissions footprint of coal and gas were equal.

There's plenty of parsing left to do here before clear answers emerge about exactly how natural gas stacks up. But one thing is increasingly certain: Without sustained efforts to shut off and capture leaked emissions in the gas production fields, whatever advantages natural gas does present will be diminished.

Sandy LeonVest

April 12, 2011, 2:38 p.m.

What about Landfill Gas (LFG)? I’ve been doing some research on Landfill Gas to Energy (LFGTE), and while it qualifies as “green” and is thus eligible for Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), there seems to be a great deal of confusion as to whether this is actually a clean energy source. Even the Sierra Club does not think LFGTE should qualify for RECs. Is anyone else out there trying to get to the bottom of this—whether LFGTE is actually “green,” or is it just another greenwashing scheme ... ?

Stephen Bodner

April 12, 2011, 2:41 p.m.

This article is lumping together energy sources for electricity with energy sources for transportation. Coal is only used for electricity. Oil is mostly used for transportation, and negligibly for electricity. A major reason to use natural gas on the truck fleet would be to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, whose price is controlled by a cartel led by Saudi Arabia. If we can find alternate ways of powering both our cars and trucks, (batteries, natural gas, and alcohols), then the cartel would fail and we would be able to cut in half our balance of payments deficit. Maybe it would even reduce the number of wars that we fight.

People like Lustgarten who don’t understand the subject matter shouldn’t write simplistic articles like this.
1) Natural gas is only leaked in significant quantities if bad drilling techniques are used, such as fracking which causes “fugitive emissions.”  Once it’s out of the ground, natural gas is contained in pipes or tanks until it’s burned, at which time it produces much less CO2 than coal because much of what’s being burned is hydrogen which produces water, not CO2.  CO2 is produced by burning carbon and coal is pure carbon.
2)  Fracking isn’t necessary to obtain gas and shouldn’t be used.  We’ve been getting natural gas without fracking for 100 years.  Fracking just increases the leakage of methane which had been safely stored underground for millions of years.
3)  Professor Howarth admits that his assumptions about leakage is a wild-ass guess, and it assumes that hydrofracking is being used.
4)  The bottom line is that we need to STOP using fossil fuels and instead rely on such promising technology as bio-diesel from algae, some species of which are 50% fats.  The technology for producing it is still new, but it would be directly usable for transportation purposes in existing vehicles.  Unfortunately, due to the power of oil company lobbyists, huge subsidies to oil companies continue to hide the true cost of gasoline—estimated to be $5 to $15 per gallon—and algae-diesel cannot compete at those prices.  Algae bio-fuel only needs sun and seawater to produce vegetable oil and there’s no shortage of either in the world.  It’s also inherently safe and non-polluting.  What we need is a crash program to develop the production technology which will include genetic engineering of the algae to maximize production.

James B Storer

April 12, 2011, 4:01 p.m.

Comparing pollution potential among various energy sources is good and must be ongoing.  We have a tendency to jump into new technologies without investigating the possible outcomes; for instance, turning corn into push water.  There is now the tendency to save the world through natural gas.  ProPublica has several ongoing investigations concerning the production and use of natural gas. 
  I am about as anti-pollution as you can get, but I think a suggestion in the above comment of Steven Bodner makes sense.  Perhaps we should promote the use of gas in the transportation field, at least in the short term, as a move to break the domination that the Middle East wields on petroleum.  This may be desirable in the short term despite whether or not it might result in some slight variation in pollution.
  This does not mean I am behind the T. Boone influence with congress to rubber stamp his current desire to increase natural gas usage along these lines.  I do not know enough about his proposal to buy into it, as I believe those who encouraged the “swift boat” project against Senator Kerry in 2004 were guilty of very unethical behavior.  This is not a partisan (Republican-Democrat) comment as I do not engage in partisanship in this format.  All my comment, above, assumes that these are stop-gap measures until we can get off fossil fuels.    Skartishu, Granby MO

fred hollander

April 12, 2011, 4:36 p.m.

Wow! Here is another opportunity for the author to pimp nuclear energy now that Japan has admitted the nuclear disaster is on the level of Chernobyl.

Interesting that no article on that after the ProPublica apologia -“5 reasons” (or was it 6?) that the Japanese disaster could never be a Chernobyl, LMAO, followed by another Lustgarten article solely quoting nuclear industry connected academics to salve our discontent and fears.

The price of crude oil is not determined by foreigners.  It is determined by the market which as we know is not sensible.  We can not blame OPEC for the current price of oil.  Hedge fund managers and day traders are gambling that the price of current oil will continue to rise and that is what is the main driver for the price of oil.  You will notice that domestic production increases when the price is high and drops when oil prices drop.  Natural gas can be used as a alternative fuel to diesel and it is produced domestically.  There may be areas where fracking has produced negative effects, but the US southwest is not one of them.  The gas is from 8,000’ to 15,000’ deep and any fracking done has no effect on surface gas.  Occasionally a well will leak some around the well head and gases will escape, but the biggest danger is hydrogen sulfide, not methane.

We will NEVER know what form of energy is the best for our country; we’ll only know which energy industry gave the most in campaign bribes. Because it is THAT industry that will survive.

Yes, I wish our politicians were not on the payroll of the various industries because then—and only then—will the politicians make an honest decision. Otherwise it is just more of the same… pure payola.

Only public funding of campaigns will reverse this corruption, and such a bill is before congress. See

Jack Lohman

@Paul - The IMF seems to think that the current price of oil is pretty sensible.

300m Chinese and Indians are driving now, so demand is going up.

cleaning up production to capture all materials (useful,useless and dangerous ones) would help natural gas, except that it would burden us with costs. Those costs might help us conserve. Even high tech dreams like wind/solar have problems and liabilities.  The least liability comes from changing our habits, and developing the habit of being responsive to our environment, rather than living “above” it, in our own isolation.
Almost all of these comments/critiques are based on the assumption that we will refuse to dramatically alter our bad habits in order to live sustainably on our earth.  I am betting that we will turn things around, but perhaps mother nature might have to smack us up against a brick wall before we get the message.  Carpool, sleep-over, turn down the heater, turn off the water heater, hang your clothes out to dry.  Just DO IT!

We will NEVER know what form of energy is the best for our country; we’ll only know which energy industry gave the most in campaign bribes. Because it is THAT industry that will survive.

Yes, I wish our politicians were not on the payroll of the various industries because then—and only then—will they make an honest decision in the best interest of our country. Until then it is just more of the same… pure payola.

Only public funding of campaigns will reverse this corruption, and such a bill is before congress. See fairelectionsnow dot org/about-bill

Jack Lohman
MoneyedPoliticians dot net

Subsidies are the economic engine that drives fossil fuel production, consumption, and addiction.

  These discussions: “Fracking good or evil” serve very effectively to dazzle, disrupt, and disarm.

  Or as we used to say in academia, “dazzle with data and baffle with bull***t.”

Stan Scobie Binghamton, NY

Subsidies are the economic engine that drives fossil fuel production, consumption, and addiction.

  These discussions: “Fracking good or evil” serve very effectively to dazzle, disrupt, and disarm.

  Or as we used to say in academia, “dazzle with data and baffle with bullcrap.”

Stan Scobie Binghamton, NY

My argument, Stan, is that without campaign bribes subsidies would not be given. IF fossil fuel production were the smartest approach, they’d do it without kickbacks. Thus we will never do it right.

First, I want to thank ProPublica for the great reporting you’ve done on the shale gas boom. The natural gas industry, President Obama, and even some leaders in the environmental community are touting natural gas as a “cleaner” energy source. But this has been largely based on assumptions that really should be questioned, including the full cycle greenhouse gas emissions of natural gas and how much natural gas can be produced economically.

Gasland, ProPublica, and others have raised questions about the environmental and human health impacts of hydro-fracking.

Professor Howarth’s research is now raising important questions about the greenhouse gas benefits (as compared to coal, in particular) of natural gas.

Post Carbon Institute’s forthcoming report (the other report referenced in Tom Zeller’s article in the New York Times) looks at the supply side of the equation.

Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of Chesapeake Energy, claimed on 60 Minutes that we have the equivalent of two Saudi Arabias worth of natural gas in the US. But what matters is not how much is in the ground, it’s how much can be produced at a sustained level. And that picture is far from rosy.

An abstract of our report can be found here: The report itself will be released next month.

T Riddering - Shale gas is via fracking.  That’s the point.

It is nice that Pro Publica continues to hammer away at fracking and the natural gas industry, which along with all energy industries is mainly concerned with profits and not much concerned with the documented damage to environment and humans that their activities and products inherently and will always cause.

I also agree with other commenters who note that some of Mr. Lustgarten’s previous articles on the nuclear industry appear to be industry propaganda, i.e., advertorials for nuclear energy.

That being said, one glaring omission in all articles I see about energy is that people NEVER consider that the real solution is for humans to drastically and immediately reduce electricity consumption and fossil fuels consumption. Yes, this would mean changing our economies, our obese lifestyles, and our arrogant insistence that our “need” for cell phones, huge cars and other toys outweighs the harms that powering those items do to us, the earth and future generations.

What is missing from these discussions are ethics, values and morals, as well as scientific accuracy. Read the book The Commonwealth of Life and you will see a far more comprehensive analysis of the real problems and actual solutions.

Isn’t it the case that the problem isn’t natural gas itself but fracking to get to it? If I remember correctly fracking is used to get oil in some cases too and it is just terribly destructive and toxic, but that isn’t necessarily unique to natural gas, right?

I surprised to see you reference your January 25th article considering that it cited, as evidence, an EPA “study” that, surprise surprise, didn’t exist! Well at least Howrath hasn’t retracted this paper yet. I guess he’s managed to massage his data points and boundary conditions into what he needs to come to his predetermined conclusion. These would include using a 45 percent higher global warming factor for methane than the IPCC, higher pipeline, compressor and distribution losses than the EPA estimates, and most incredulously not taking an equally thorough look at the life cycle emissions from coal.

Juts what I have come to expect though.

Heck….if we wait, the Republicans will do away with the EPA, and we won’t have to worry about ANY of their information!!  This goes to show that we DO need the EPA, and we DO need to continue funding them to do these studies and tests; otherwise, we’ll all have no air to breathe or water to drink!

Mr. Howarth’s paper, cited above as ‘Howarth’s research’, is out there for peer review.  His opinions may not be perfect, but his research is supported by data.  It’s there to discuss.  Howarth’s contribution is very different in content from the opinions rendered in this column by those who offer nothing to support their opinions but rather make a personal attack.

The Marcellus shale gas industry apparently finds the loss of some natural gas to be an acceptable cost of production.  If, as Howarth states, this loss is unacceptable from an environmental standpoint, the industry and its regulators need to find a means to prevent natural gas loss.  Protecting people and the environment - that’s what I’ve come to expect.

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.

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