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Abrahm Lustgarten Answers the Question, “How Clean Is Natural Gas?”

ProPublica recently published a report that challenged assertions that natural gas was much cleaner than coal. Reporter Abrahm Lustgarten found out that “gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, or perhaps even less.”

Lustgarten discussed his findings on the ProPublica Podcast and told us, “When you count the pollution that comes from the production side of it, it’s still cleaner than other fuels, but just not quite as much as everyone says. It doesn’t hit that 50 percent mark. And in some of the equipment that’s used, in some of the power plants that are operating in the United States, it’s far from it.”

Lustgarten also responds to some questions that have been raised about his report.


Mike: Hi, I’m Mike Webb and welcome to the ProPublica podcast. Last week, Abrahm Lustgarten broke news about new natural gas emission figures from the Environmental Protection Agency that showed natural gas is not as clean as many people think it is. In fact, Lustgarten wrote, “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.” While natural gas advocates routinely assert that it produces 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal, Lustgarten used the new data and worked them into an analysis of the full lifecycle of natural gas and found gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, and perhaps even less. Abrahm joins us here today to discuss these new findings. He’s written more than 60 articles about the environmental risk of natural gas production for ProPublica and before he joined us, he reported on energy issues for Fortune magazine and he’s written numerous other pieces for many different, major publications. Welcome to the podcast, Abrahm.

Abrahm: Thank you.

Mike: So, how do you determine how clean a fuel source is?

Abrahm: Well, there’s a whole lot of factors that go into it. The way that it’s traditionally been done is measuring the pollution that comes out of it when the fuel is expended, whether it’s burned in an engine and comes out the tailpipe of a car or burned in a power plant and comes out the top of a smokestack. What we started looking at is what they’re calling a ‘life cycle approach,’ which is when you consider everything that goes into that fuel source, not just burning it at the end of the process. So that means drilling for it out of the ground or digging it out of the ground, it means trucking it off to wherever it gets processed or shipping it across the ocean, or whatever happens – all inclusive.

Mike: All things combined. And what were the original estimates about the cleanliness of natural gas?

Abrahm: We’ve heard for a long time and from all ends of the political spectrum and the business spectrum that gas is 50 percent cleaner than coal, in particular. And generally, it’s misstated that gas is simply 50 percent cleaner than most other fuels. It’s true that gas burns clean, but generally that refers to that end-of-tailpipe, end-of-smokestack kind of measurement.

Mike: Not the whole lifecycle.

Abrahm: Not the whole lifecycle at all, which is a very new way of looking at this issue.

Mike: And did the EPA generally confirm those numbers that you raise?

Abrahm: The EPA confirmed its doubling of its methane emissions estimates. The EPA wasn’t involved in trying to understand the lifecycle impact of natural gas. There’s really two parts to the equation: one is what you do to figure out what a lifecycle pollution burden is to a fuel; the other is simply figuring out how much pollution there is out there before you go and count it. It’s that part that the EPA did. And then we pieced that together with the lifecycle analysis from some researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

Mike: Abrahm, what changed with the EPA?

Abrahm: The EPA has estimated the amount of emissions from natural gas and lots of other sources for a long time. It issues a national greenhouse gas inventory every year. But to figure out methane emissions from what it calls ‘fugitive and vented emissions’ from the gas fields, it’s essentially taken a couple measurements here and there and then averaged it out across the whole country. Those estimates for years have been criticized as being way, way too low. There’s a number of studies: the state of New Mexico did a study, the University of California, Irvine did a study – all questioning the EPA’s data and how it was going about getting these figures. So, the last year or so has led to a kind of revisiting of this issue by the EPA. About eight months ago, they started to acknowledge that their numbers were low and worked to increase them and they bumped them up about 30 or 40 percent at that point, in conversations with me anyway. And then in November, they came out with this working technical document, which was a source for my material in this story, where they increase their estimates by 105 percent from what they had reported just last May. And that’s a reflection of their increased understanding of what’s actually happening in the gas fields and just measuring a whole lot more carefully.

Mike: OK, so what’s the real deal? How clean is natural gas?

Abrahm: Well, when you count the pollution that comes from the production side of it, it’s still cleaner than other fuels, but just not quite as much as everyone says. It doesn’t hit that 50 percent mark. And in some of the equipment that’s used, in some of the power plants that are operating in the United States, it’s far from it. It can be as little as 25 percent or 30 percent cleaner than coal.

Mike: And is that over the lifecycle?

Abrahm: That’s a lifecycle analysis that incorporates the amount of emissions that are leaked during the production of natural gas and during the mining of coal, according to the EPA’s new estimates.

Mike: OK, and from what you’ve written, it sounds like methane is the key problem or pollutant with natural gas.

Abrahm: Well, there’s carbon dioxide and methane, as well as other greenhouse gases. We focused on methane in particular because methane is natural gas and there’s a great amount of it that comes, particularly from the natural gas drilling process, and methane is unique in that it is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide in terms of its effect on global warming. A small part of methane has the same warming effect on the atmosphere as a very large amount of CO2. So, not only is there a lot of this methane leaking out there, but then it has an outsize impact and it makes it the most important pollutant to look at.

Mike: Well then, explain how the methane actually gets out. How does it escape during the whole process?

Abrahm: Well, if you go to a gas field, there’s a ton of equipment and most of it sits out there on the barren plains of Texas without anything else around it and after a well is drilled and left, there’s a wellhead that sticks out of the grass and it’s six or eight feet high and it’s a big chunk of metal and has a bunch of valves on it. And then from there, the gas can either be loaded onto trucks that visit or it can go into a pipeline and the pipeline goes into these huge facilities called compressor stations and then on and on and throughout this process. And at every single stage along the way, every single time two pieces of metal are screwed together just like the plumbing in your house, stuff leaks out of it. The gas is invisible, so it’s not clear how much is leaking out, but the EPA has gone out with infrared cameras and you can actually see this stuff just billowing out at almost, through an infrared camera it looks like a house on fire.

Mike: Then why were so many people wrong about the cleanliness of natural gas? Is it because the industry is promoting it as an alternative fuel source and because they see big potential for growth and profit?

Abrahm: Well, it’s a multi-part answer to that question. I mean I don’t think that anything nefarious was going on. I don’t think that we were deliberately misinformed. The fact is that gas is cleaner by the kind of measures that we talked about. And I think that as political pressures come into the conversation about where and how much we should drill that the gas industry has certainly seized that opportunity to push this idea that gas is that much cleaner. At the same time, this idea of measuring any fuel source or actually any environmental impact on a lifecycle basis is relatively new. A year ago, there was very little research. Six months ago, there was a bit more. And now, it’s kind of coming into its own, so it really is an important and new development in terms of measuring environmental impact, whether you’re talking about fuel sources and natural gas or you’re talking about water usage.

Mike: OK, I want to pull back a little bit and just sort of address some of the criticisms of our reporting because many people have said that you and ProPublica are opposed to natural gas drilling. Is that true?

Abrahm: I don’t think so at all. I mean, if you get me in private conversation, my personal belief is gas is an important bridge fuel. My personal motivation for doing these stories, particularly the last one on emissions, is to make sure that people are adequately informed. I think gas should be and will need to be a bridge fuel towards a cleaner future. But I think that when we decide to go and develop that gas and local communities decide that they’re going to shoulder the various environmental impacts that that brings with it, they should be correctly informed about what they’re getting in return. And to say, when we know otherwise, that they’re achieving a 50 percent benefit and that this is for a certain defined good for the country when in fact that benefit is half of that doesn’t mean that’s it’s not worth doing, but I think those people ought to know.

Mike: Right. It needs to be taken into the equation and to the full discussion.

Abrahm: Absolutely.

Mike: Now, also, Andrew Revkin, the environmental reporter for the New York Times wrote about your piece and he said, just as you did, he sees it as an important bridge fuel. But he also said it’s crucial for gas companies to stanch the gas leaks. Can you respond to that?

Abrahm: Yeah, absolutely. The EPA has a program called Natural Gas Star, which does just that. It works with companies to go out and proactively stanch the gas leaks and it’s very effective. They’ve made great progress and they will continue to do that and there’s a possibility that these companies will work proactively to substantially limit the quantity of emissions that we reported this week. In his blog post, Andrew Revkin suggested that all of the emissions could eventually be leaked and that then you could go ahead and consider the emissions of natural gas to be much less than we’ve reported. The problem with that is I don’t think that’s an option. The EPA tells me that as effective as Natural Gas Star is, it thinks that they can cut down the emissions by 15 percent, maybe 40 percent at the absolute most, so we’re still looking at – let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say it’s 50 percent that they’re able to cut it by – we’re still looking at a lot of upstream, meaning production-level natural gas field emissions that need to be counted into the equation, and I think that Andrew Revkin neglected to do that.

Mike: OK. Well, Abrahm, thank you very much for joining us. You can read this story and all of his reporting at

Now onto our ‘Officials Say’ Tumblr of the week. “Said sandwich wrap was unwholesome and unfit for human consumption in that it was presented to contain pitted olives, yet unknown to plaintiff, contained an unpitted olive or olives which plaintiff did not reasonably expect to be in the food prepared for him, and could not visually detect prior to consumption.” That’s from a lawsuit filed by Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich alleging that the U.S. House of Representatives cafeteria served in a vegetarian sandwich wrap that damaged his teeth. He seeks $150,000 in damages. You can see all of the latest posts at OK, that’s it for this week. Our new producer is Minhee Cho. For ProPublica, I’m Mike Webb. We’ll see you next week.

Mike Webb

Mike Webb was the vice president/communications of ProPublica. He is a veteran communications specialist with experience in public relations, marketing, sales and campaign work at media companies, think tanks, political organizations and in the entertainment business.

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