Reducing the Natural Gas “Bridge,” for Human and Environmental Health
The Risks and Dangers Associated with Natural Gas
To reach critical and urgent climate change mitigation goals, we must decrease global carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. To achieve this reduction, there is no doubt we must decrease dependence on all fossil fuels, including natural gas, while also producing and consuming these energy sources more cleanly. We must also immediately increase investment in renewable energy and energy storage technologies. Specific strategies will vary by region and country and efforts must be made to accommodate lower-income nations to protect their rights and not hold those responsible for a problem they did not cause, but there is no doubt that a “business as usual” strategy is not a responsible course of action and will result in dire climate and health consequences.
Natural gas is a non-renewable, hydrocarbon fossil fuel which is primarily used for heating, cooking, and electricity production. Natural gas is also used to fuel cars, trucks, and marine vessels, and to manufacture plastics and other commercially organic chemicals. Natural gas has been marketed for decades as a better alternative to oil and coal and is still actively described as a cleaner burning fossil fuel which can serve as a bridge to a cleaner energy future, as it emits less carbon dioxide (CO2) at the point of combustion than coal or oil. The problem is that the details and facts don’t seem to add up for natural gas, and quite the opposite in fact and in practice. There’s clear and growing reason to worry that natural gas has greater environmental and human health risks than previously thought and is therefore can’t be counted as the “safer” bridge fuel many industry members claimed, and policymakers and consumers believed. And yet indications are that natural gas production and consumption is not going away any time soon, and instead continues to rise steadily. This pattern must change.
There are several key reasons we can not continue to rely on natural gas at increased and even current levels. First, natural gas is still a fossil fuel. So even if natural gas combustion emits less climate impacting CO2, it still emits CO2. “Less bad isn’t good,” as plenty of others have pointed out. So it might just be a good plan to focus on reduction anyway. But beyond the CO2 question, the methane in natural gas turns out to be a greater climate change threat than CO2. If and when natural gas can be contained until the point of combustion, there can at least be a valid argument that at least it burns cleaner than oil and coal, but one of the greatest challenges posed by natural gas is that it leaks throughout the extraction, production, and transmission processes. These leaks, some of which could are preventable, cause and/or aggravate a host of other human and environmental health problems.
Fortunately, there are some actions we can immediately take to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, including natural gas, to improve current production and delivery systems, and to invest in renewable and related, more sustainable technologies so that we can produce and consume energy more efficiently and sustainably. Key to these efforts will be better understanding natural gas risks instead of complacently and mistakenly thinking we’ve found a magic, clean solution that doesn’t actually exist. We can not ignore or wish this problem away, but with technological innovation, significant policy changes, and perhaps some shared hard work, we can create a real, promising path to a more responsible energy future. Natural gas may yet have some reduced role to play in a cleaner and healthier energy future, but if nothing else, the bridge must be shorter and perform better (more cleanly) than it has to date.
Natural Gas Growth, and Fracking
Natural gas is currently one of the most widely used energy sources at approximately 22% of global consumption, with 3.9 trillion cubic meters consumed worldwide each year. Along with coal and oil, natural gas helped drive global economic development since the Industrial Revolution. These fossil fuels currently make up about 85% of the world’s energy mix, a number that will have to change to prevent the worst effects of climate change. North America, Europe, and Eurasia have accounted for the majority of gas production and consumption and account for about 95% of the world’s gas production.
Some projections estimate that natural gas use will rise by more than 50% in 2035 over 2010 levels (which also grew 45% a year on average between 2005 and 2010), a pattern of growth that began in the late 1990’s when hydraulic fracturing, or fracking first became commercially viable. Fracking, also known as unconventional drilling, is a process by which oil and gas trapped in fields, or plays of low-permeable sedimentary rock can be mined by drilling horizontally from an initial vertical well and then pumping in a mixture of water, chemicals, and sand to unlock the trapped fuels. Conventional gas drilling involves accessing pockets of gas in highly permeable reservoir rock that are trapped below impermeable rock through vertical wells. The discovery of large amounts of shale gas in the United States and Canada revolutionized the global energy industry, as oil and gas input rose almost 60% in the decade between 2010 and 2020, giving the US not only energy independence but a world leadership position, and reducing the country’s dependence on coal. In 1996, shale gad accounted for 1.6% of US gas production. Fracking now makes up about 50% of Canadian natural gas production and 67% in the US.
The chart below shows total global energy consumption from 1800 to 2019. The increase in natural gas consumption since the mid 20th century and the further acceleration since the turn of the 21st century are visible.
This chart shows the current global energy mix and as estimated by what looks like a “business as usual” (current policies-based) projection in 2035 (follow the link and you can select different years, starting with 1990) without significant climate policy changes or leaps in technology.
Global Energy Mix, Comparing 2020 with Projections for 2035
In contrast, the figures below show how different the world electricity can look in a Stated Policies scenario including all current and announce policies, and also a Sustainable Development sceneario which shows an aggressive and pervasive pursuit of decarbonization policies, including heavy investment in renewable and associated technologies.
Image: Power Magazine, https://www.powermag.com/10-power-sector-insights-from-the-ieas-world-energy-outlook-2019/
According to the Global Methane Initiative (GMI), more than 50% of human-caused methane emissions derive from five sources:
- Natural gas and oil systems (24%)
- Landfills (11%)
- Coal mining (9%)
- Wastewater (7%)
- Agricultural (animal waste and management)(3%)
Additional methane leak sources are shown below.
Estimated Global Anthropogenic Methane Emissions by Source, 2020
The problem is that many current trends do not seem to indicate the rapid change needed to meet stated and agreed upon climate goals. The natural gas industry continues to plan expansion globally, and in the US with plans to add over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025 and then another $30 billion for new interstate gas pipelines (Rocky Mountain Institute, 2019). According to Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, “The IEA sees an enormous increase in natural gas use in the future, fueled by an abundance of supply and high demand from China and India.” Some believe these estimates may prove incorrect due to overproduction and low prices, and/or if renewable energy sources are able to gain a greater share of energy production.
How did natural gas come to be thought of as a bridge fuel to a cleaner future? For one thing, the gas industry did a surprisingly remarkable marketing job by adding the word “natural” to a fossil fuel gas that is largely methane, as “methane gas” doesn’t sound quite as appealing. Natural gas was then marketed in some countries for decades as a cleaner, cheaper fuel, and also as a more desirable fuel for cooking, and home heating and appliances. Another benefit after the energy crises of the 1970’s was the idea that natural gas could help countries dependent on Middle East and Venezuelan oil gain greater energy independence, stability, and security from those countries. Natural gas has generally been cheaper than oil, even before the recent fracking boom, so this made the choice to convert to gas easier, particularly when oil prices were high. And once consumers have a strong good impression and believe they are living cleaner and cooking better, these views become entrenched and therefore difficult to change.
In recent years and with the growth of climate change awareness and concern, perhaps the main selling point of natural gas has been that natural gas produces lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than coal and oil, at the point of combustion. Using efficient technology, natural gas can indeed product 25-30% less CO2 than oil, and 40-45% less CO2 than coal when it burns. In addition to these CO2 savings, natural gas combustion produces lower levels of other pollutants, including nitrogen and sulfur oxides, mercury, and particulate matter. So, the argument was put forth that natural gas was/is a cleaner fossil fuel and a less bad fossil fuel. The problem is that this claim was based on incomplete information and assumes a system that performs in theory in a way that natural gas production, distribution and transmission have not performed in practice.
Natural Gas and Greenhouse Gas Emissions/Climate Impacts
Almost every nation has now ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement and committed to limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and to make an effort to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. To reach this ambitious goal, it was and remains clear that there must be a global reduction of dependence on global warming causing fossil fuels and an increase in renewable energy production, along with considerable technological improvements, inventions, and behavioral and demand changes.
In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report concluding that global greenhouse gas emissions need to reach net zero by approximately 2050 to have reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5ºC degrees above pre-industrial levels. Net zero means we must reach the point where all emissions produced are balanced by absorbing an equivalent amount of energy from the atmosphere. The burning of all fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, and the CO2 then traps heat and contributes to climate change. Combustion may be a key point of emissions in the life-cycle of natural gas, but looking at combustion does not tell the whole climate change story. It turns out that natural gas is up to 95% made up of methane, a potent greenhouse gas which traps 87 times more heat than CO2 in its first 20 years after release, and averages 34 times over 100 years. Methane is released throughout the natural gas production process, both intentionally and accidentally, which offsets climate benefits that could be realized at the point of combustion. The methane leaks are surprisingly significant, and in the final analysis natural gas produces as much or more greenhouse gas emissions than other fossil fuels.
How much gas leaks? First, it’s important to understand that leaks are both intentional and unintentional and can happen anywhere on the journey gas takes from hundreds of thousands of wells, over millions of miles of (sometimes old and corroded) pipelines to its final industrial, commercial, or residential use. In 2011, the World Bank estimated that up to 5.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (25% of US consumption) was intentionally flared or combusted in an open flame to dispose of the gas. Flaring takes place in large volumes when it’s cheaper to get rid of the gas or a byproduct than to transport it to market, but flaring can also happen during testing and maintenance, and during operations, for pressure relief, waste removal, or VOC disposal. This disposal of unwanted gas was common in large volumes in the past when natural gas was not as commercially viable as oil but was generated as a byproduct of oil drilling, but this largescale flaring still happens in developing countries where insufficient infrastructure exists, or when prices are low. Gas flaring is estimated to contribute approximately 1% of man-made atmospheric carbon emissions. To get a sense of the size of the amount of gas, the state of Texas somehow flares almost as much gas annually as its residents use. Venting, or the release of gas without combustion, is also a growing problem. Venting is often prohibited aside from a small and specific set of operations because the practice directly emits hydrocarbons that can cause cancer, birth defects or other serious health problems. Alarmingly, venting may be rising due to the fact that flared gas shows up on satellites and vented gas does not. 2020 research by MIT suggests that up to 4.9% of natural gas is lost globally.
One challenge is that there isn’t a consistent and/or agreed upon way to measure the leaks. One type of study is bottom-up, where measurements at select facilities are used to generalize results for the rest of the industry. Clearly, this kind of approach can lead to miscounting depending on which facilities are used – a significant undercount can result from using better performing facilities. One measurement concern is that the industry seems to be host to a number of super-emitting plants that are responsible for a large share of emissions. Top-down studies measure atmospheric methane and work to determine the likely emissions source. The problem with this methodology is that it’s hard to assign a source with absolute certainty.
There seems to be a general consensus that methane leaks greater than 3% make natural gas a dirtier fuel than coal. The industry claims a leak rate of approximately 1% and the EPA calculates a 1.4% leak rate, but there’s a growing volume of data to suggest that the real numbers are far higher. In 2011, Cornell Ecology Professor Robert Howarth calculated that methane losses from shale gas production could be as high as 8 percent over the lifetime of a well. In 2019, Professor Howarth was also able to directly tie increasing methane levels to fracking. In 2013, The Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) database listed more than 1,400 gas companies, of which seventy-two companies reported lost or unaccounted leak rates of 10% or higher and two hundred and seventy-five companies reported rates between 3 and 9.9%. Unfortunately at the time, only 5% of wells were listed. In 2013, researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado in Boulder found leak rates of 4% in Colorado and then 9% in Utah facilities. A 2016 review of studies showed that US methane emissions increased by more than 30% between 2002 and 2014, as measured by satellites. This increase explains 30-60% of the global growth of atmospheric methane observed during this time period. This increase also corresponds with the timing of the US fracking boom.
Aging gas infrastructure is another reason for leaks. In 2019, researchers flew over 6 major US cities and measured concentrations of methane and other gases. The team concluded that 750,000 tons of methane leaks from homes, businesses, and gas distribution infrastructure (well over triple the amount emitted by gas production in the Bakken shale formation in the U.S. Midwest, and over double the EPA estimate of 370,000 tons.) The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Google partnered in 2013 to map gas maps in select cities (click to view these interactive maps). In 2015, nonprofit Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) worked to map over 20,000 leaks in Massachusetts. The organizations are to “make the invisible visible” and raise awareness.
One problem reducing natural gas loss and waste is that the economic incentives are often not aligned with urgent environmental goals. In the U.S., gas leakage costs approximately $30 billion annually in lost gas company revenues. One would think the industry would like to recover these funds. But it turns out that the environmental impact and cost to society of the leak is greater than the cost of preventing the leak or performing the repair. In 2016, Catherine Hausman, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, University of Michigan, provided an example where the commodity cost of gas is between $2 and $5 per thousand cubic feet, while the societal cost of the gas leak might be $27 per thousand cubic feet. If the technology to repair the leak costs $10 per cubic thousand feet, the company will not implement the solution as it does not have an incentive to do so. This misalignment also occurs at other points in the supply chain, including at the point of local distribution. If the local company sends out 100 cubic feet and only 97 cubic feet reach customers, a regulated distributor can declare the “lost and unaccounted for gas” as an expense and be fully reimbursed. The incentive to repair leaks is then fairly low without regulation/requirement.
Another economic problem concerns a worry over a concept and future risk known as a “stranded asset.” Although cleaner energy costs are falling and a new UC Berkeley study shows how it is possible to 90% clean electricity by 2035 without building any new gas plants , Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) reports that utilities are still currently planning another $70 billion in new gas-fired power plants through 2025, as well as another $30 billion for new interstate gas pipelines. This does not sound so alarming if natural gas still has an energy role to play in a future system, but these plants have a useful life of 35 years on average. Therefore, a plant going forward will likely no longer make any environmental sense to operate even if they can make economic sense, while utilities (and therefore customers) may still be paying off these investments. Utilities that have already “sunk” costs in new plants may continue to operate them if they are economically feasible, while other utilities may dismantle plants that people are still needlessly paying for. This is a problem that it’s possible to see and prevent today, but they payoffs and timing are complex, and the losers and winners may not have the same incentives to get it right.
Air pollution is an unfortunate and significant consequence all fossil fuel generation, including natural gas. A 2020 report by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) found that air pollution from burning fossil fuels accounts for an estimated 4.5 million premature deaths each year worldwide. The report is the first to assess the global cost of air pollution from fossil fuels and estimates that air pollution from burning fossil fuels costs approximately 3.3% of global gross domestic product, equal to approximately US$8billion per day or US$2.8 trillion per year.
Pollution is generated throughout the production, generation and transmission process. While air and water pollution do not respect borders and clearly ultimately affect all of us, the immediate effects are often focused on local populations and habitats.
At extraction sites, both intentional and unintentional gas leaks release pollutants including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere. VOCs then react with nitrogen oxides and other chemicals to form ground-level ozone, known as smog or haze. Smog negatively effects both human and environmental health. Smog can cause or worsen a number of respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, including asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. Eye irritation is common, and reduced resistance to colds and lung infections have also been reported. The elderly, children, adults who are active outdoors, and people with health conditions are particularly vulnerable to these effects. Smog also acts as a shell which stunts the growth of plants and vegetation and causes widespread damage to farm crops and forests. On days with heavy smog, vulnerable populations are often advised to stay indoors.
The machinery and vehicles on drill sites also cause air pollution by releasing diesel fumes. These fumes are hazardous to both the workers and the residents living in the vicinity.
It is worth noting that children suffer more effects from air pollution as their immune systems are not fully formed, among other reasons. According to a 2016 paper by health expert Frederica Perera and her colleagues at Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health, children under 5 suffer from approximately 40 percent of all environment-linked disease, even though they only make up 10% of the world’s population. The risks are higher among children of color and those who live in poorer households. According to Perera’s research, early life air pollution is a risk factor for low birth weight, heart disease, asthma, bronchitis, developmental delays, stress, and ADHD. The CREA) report estimated that 40,000 children annually die before their fifth birthday because of exposure to fossil fuel related pollution.
The pollution from natural gas contributes to water degradation as well. Like air pollution, water pollution can have devastating impacts on human and environmental health. Much of the water pollution concern associated with natural gas revolves around fracking due to the large volumes of water required to release gas trapped deep underground.
At fracking sites, holes are drilled deep into the earth, and liquid known as slickwater is injected into the subterranean rock under high levels of pressure to open fissures and release gas stored and otherwise trapped within these rocks and reservoirs below. These liquids combine water with various toxic, additives and chemicals which can be detergents, salts, acids, alcohols, lubricants and disinfectants, including benzene and ethylbenzene, which are carcinogenous. Companies are not required to report the chemical recipe they use, so some risks are harder to calculate. When the water and chemicals return to the surface, this liquid now known as flowback or produced water can also contain radioactive materials heavy metals, and salts, in addition to the chemicals. The liquid can be sent to a wastewater treatment facility, but it is difficult and therefore expensive to clean the water for safe use. Therefore, operators most often either reuse the water for other fracking processes, store it on site in pits, or inject the liquid waste back into deep underground wells. Fracking can use on average between 1.5 and 15.8 million gallons of water per well or reservoir, water which is then lost to the water cycle.
There is growing concern and evidence that water from fracking sites leaches back into drinking water supplies a percentage of the time. Each frack uses about 25,000 gallons of chemicals, which might contain any one of 750+ chemicals or other components. One report found that 2 BILLION gallons of chemicals and 250 billion gallons of water were used for fracking between 2015 and 2013. Twenty-nine of the chemicals found in these products are known or possible human carcinogens, are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or are listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. (The Energy Policy Act of 2005, somehow contained a loophole that exempted fracking from safety regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act.) A 2005-2014 study of over 30,000 wells in Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania found that 2-16% of wells reported a spill each year, and that 75—94% of spills occurred in the first three years of a well’s life, when wells were drilled, completed and experienced their largest production volumes.
There are industry claims that fracking liquids are injected deep enough in the ground that they can not affect drinking water, but there are many opportunities for leaking to occur. Half of the reported spills in the 2005-2014 study related to materials stored onsite in pits and tanks, and moving fluids via flowlines. Failing or improperly constructed wells can also leak, and fluid can migrate along abandoned wells, improperly sealed wells, or through failed pit liners. Surface water is also at risk from chemical storage and spills during transport, including transport fuels. In 2011, Duke researchers documented Pennsylvania and New York drinking water near wells that measured methane levels the US Interior Department defines as requiring urgent hazard mitigation action. Also in 2011, a Pennsylvania well malfunctioned and spewed thousands of gallons of contaminated fracking water for more than 12 hours. The same company settled a lawsuit for contaminating local drinking water in 2012. Studies, known cases, and Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) data particularly valuable, as settlements are most often not public, and many companies do not share their data.
The process of injecting liquid and sand into rock formations through fracking have resulted in seismic activity. Fracking often intentionally causes small earthquakes of up to a moment magnitude of 1 (M1) or 2 (M2), but unintended numbers of smaller earthquakes and larger earthquakes have occurred, from the fracking itself and also due to the reinjection of slickwater. In 2019, shale drilling related earthquakes in China damaged 11,000 homes. Oklahoma has experienced a large number of earthquakes since 2009 related to oil and gas drilling, including a 2019 M3.6 earthquake in 2019. A study by Michael Brudzinski and colleagues at Miami University in Ohio identified more than 600 small fracking related earthquakes (between magnitude 2.0 and 3.8) in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas. While it may be difficult to predict exactly what proves an earthquake is related to fracking activities, Oklahoma went from 1 or 2 earthquakes per year to over 800 in one year, some over M5. The faults in Oklahoma and Texas had been inactive for 300+ million years. A 2013 study found that over half of the M4.5 or larger earthquakes in the prior decade could be linked to fracking activities.
Natural Gas - Human Health Dangers
On the Work Site
Drilling wells is an inherently a dangerous job. Dust from the sand in fracking fluids can become airborne and is dangerous to breathe. Hydrocarbons like benzene and toluene can cause leukemia and other types of cancer and health problems. On site diesel emissions contain over 40 toxic air contaminants and can also cause or aggravate health conditions. Additional risks include fires, explosions, chemical spills and releases, vehicle accidents, and equipment malfunctions.
(Image: © MKolba/Shutterstock.com)
Living Near the Work Site
Pollution and disruption from drilling sites has a disproportionate effect on local communities. People near a well site might experience traffic, noise, and poor air quality during the drilling process. Aside from the drilling related chemicals, over 1000 truck trips can take place by the start of actual gas production, during the well pad preparation (one month), drilling (another month) and the fracking (one week). Emissions from site equipment add on top of the vehicle emissions, and gas flaring further pollutes the air. Their local water can be contaminated if a spill occurs (reported at up to 16% in one study of wells, above). The chemicals used in oil and gas development are clearly hazardous, and long term exposure can increase the risk of neurologic, developmental, endocrine system problems, poor respiratory health, and even cancer.
Over 150 studies suggest that chemicals released during natural gas extraction may harm human reproduction and development. In 2012, researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health released a study showing that air pollution caused by fracking could contribute to immediate and long-term health problems for people living near fracking sites. A 2014 Colorado study found a higher rate of birth defects among children born to mothers who had lived near gas wells. A 2016 Pennsylvania study also found that living near a fracking site might increase a person's risk of developing asthma. A 2017 Colorado study found that children living within 16.1 kilometers of an oil or gas well had increased risks of developing cancer.
One challenge is that there are just still so many uncertainties and unknowns. One would think this means we should be more careful and not less, and we should be gathering information about all wells. The issue is clearly significant; there were over 500,000 natural gas wells in the US alone by 2010, and a 2014 study indicated that over 15 million people lived within a mile of a fracking well drilled since 2000.
Most leaks continue unreported or out of general public awareness, but it should be the case that we learn from larger incidents and accidents. A leak was discovered in Porter Ranch California in 2015 after residents fell ill with headaches, breathing problems and nosebleeds. The nearby Aliso Canyon high-pressure underground storage facility had experienced a major leak due to an old single-pipe design and a lack of modern back up safety valves, and continued to leak for 4 months, spilling over 100,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere. Residents and firefighters sued in 2018, and documented that they still suffered from nosebleeds, migraine headaches, rashes, and sleeping and breathing difficulties. Three years later, researchers complained they still did not have enough information to complete proper assessments due to a lack of data. California alone has 12 other similar facilities, which were found in 201 to have 229 leaks, 11 of which were labeled higher hazard risks. In a 2018 piece in the LA Times, Drew Michanowicz reported that he and colleagues estimated there were more than 2700 similar storage facilities in the US alone. Mr. Michanowicz, a Research Fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also reported that more than 10,000 US wells seem to have a similar design risk to those at Alisa Canyon, of a single pipe and that 400 of these are similarly located on top of underground storage facilities across 32 states.
Along Pipeline Routes
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), oil and gas pipelines lack adequate regulation, inspection, and enforcement (US). Key figures from U.S. natural gas pipelines provided by FractTracker from 2010 to 2018 include 600 total injuries, more than 125 fatalities, more than 800 fires, almost 300 explosions, more than $4 billion in damages and approximately 30,000 people who have had to be evacuated. Shockingly, The Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) estimates that only 5% of gas gathering pipelines are subject to PHMSA safety regulations. It is difficult to know where all of the unregulated lines might be and if they are being monitored at all for safety. Not only are a great majority of gathering pipelines unregulated but it is hard to even determine where they are and if they are being observed for any safety regulation. FractTracker also reported that every four days a pipeline catches on fire approximately every four days which then results in an explosion every 11 days, and an injury every 5 days, ending with a fatality every 26 days.
Image: LA Times, https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-aliso-canyon-gas-20170719-story.html
Cooking and Heating with Natural Gas
Many homes rely on and use gas stoves for heating and cooking, but burning gas in buildings is a significant source of indoor air pollution, especially without proper ventilation and when equipment is faulty. The two main pollutants generated by cooking and heating with gas are carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxide (NO2). Other pollutants include sulfur dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, VOCs and particulate matter. Dangers associated with these chemicals even with non-faulty equipment include diabetes, cancer, reduced lung function, increased risk of and worsening of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease symptoms, nervous system damage, delayed neurodevelopment in children, and even premature death. Surprisingly, indoor air is largely unregulated, even though we spend about 90% of our time indoors and studies have shown that concentrations of certain pollutants are often higher indoors than are allowed outdoors.
According to an impressive 2020 report by Rocky Mountain Institute, Mothers Out Front, the Sierra Club, and Physicians for Social Responsibility, homes with gas stoves have approximately 50% to over 400% higher average NO2 concentrations than homes with electric stoves. A 2011-2013 study showed that 5% of California homes tested exceeded the state’s ambient (outdoor) CO exposure limits. The report also finds that NO2 levels also often exceed outdoor US EPA standards which are higher than the World Health Organization indoor standards.
There is increasing evidence that children are more vulnerable to the effects of NO. In particular, asthma risks increase with even short-term higher exposure to NO. A 2009 study also found that aged 0-4 exposure to indoor air pollution from gas appliances may increase the risk of adverse brain development, including impaired cognitive function and ADHD. A 2013 study found a direct correlation between NO levels and childhood asthma. Above 6 parts per billion (ppb) of NO, studies found a 15% to 50% increased risk of wheezing. With respect to gas stoves specifically, studies found a 42% increased risk of experiencing asthma symptoms in children when a home has a gas stove, a 24% increased risk of lifetime asthma, and an overall 32% increased risk of both current and lifetime asthma. It is also worth noting that lower income houses are often at higher risk due to a number of factors, including insufficient ventilation.
Land use and wildlife
There is no question that gas production alters the land and causes harm to local ecosystems, including distorting local wildlife living, eating, and migration patterns. Site are cleared to build well pads, roads are built for vehicle and equipment access, earth and minerals are stripped and moved, chemicals are injected into the ground and are often stored on site. Even without spills, an unknown amount of disturbed earth, minerals, and pollution can seep into the local ecology including streams and other water resources, from the well site and along pipelines, to anywhere throughout the production and delivery process. At the drill site, operations are around the clock, disturbing animals as well as people. When a well has been shut down, it may take centuries for the land recovers. Lasting impacts include loss of vegetation, erosion (and associated landslides and flooding), surface disruptions, and spoiling wildlife habitats.
Natural gas also has a harmful effect on trees and other vegetation. Put bluntly by Phil Mckenna of Inside Climate News, “Gas leaks kill plants.” McKenna writes about a study published by the journal Environmental Pollution, in which Boston area dying and dead trees exposed were found to be 30 times more likely to be exposed to methane. Methane often leaking from old and corroding cast iron natural gas apparently seeps into the soil and takes the place of the oxygen that trees need to live, suffocating them. Study coauthor Robert Ackley wasn’t surprised, as he had been trained to look for dead or dying vegetation to find leaks in his previous 35-year career working for utility companies.
The concern and study of tree health related to gas leaks isn’t new, dating back to 1800’s observations that street gas lamp locations and dying trees seemed to correlate, but this is the first effort that quantifies that relationship, though in a particular urban setting. Losses due to sick and dying trees include cleaner air, carbon sequestration, habitat, landscape aesthetics and psychological benefits, shade, and the actual cost to replace the lost vegetation. Madeleine Scammell, an environmental health professor at Boston University's School of Public Health and a study co-author makes an interesting and challenging point: "If these trees were humans, we would be talking about what to do to stop this immediately."
Gas Leak Explosion Damage/Injuries
Though residential gas explosions due to natural gas are not common, they are a real risk of working with a volatile fuel. In 2018, a series of gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts cased 80 fires, killed one person, injured 25 others, and forced 30,000 people to evacuate. The explosion was due to improper instructions which led to a lack of key pressure reading equipment on a replacement pipeline. Another major incident occurred in the same state in Boston in 1983 and one in Danvers in 1990. From 1998 to 2017, 15 people a year, on average, died in incidents related to gas distribution in the U.S. “Significant incidents”—(causing injury or death, or resulting in at least $50,000 of damage, or leading to a fire or explosion) happen about 286 times a year. Globally, Wikipedia counts just over 30 gas explosions since 2000 (not all explosions are necessarily counted).
Understanding Energy and Natural Gas in Different Geographies
A United Nations report calculated that world greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by over 7.5% for the next ten years to meet Paris Agreement goals; meanwhile emissions have steadily increased over the previous decade. Specific strategies will vary by country, region and state, but we must ramp up efforts to decrease dependence on all fossil fuels, including natural gas, while also reducing the harms caused by producing and consuming these energy sources. We must also immediately increase investment in renewable energy and energy storage technologies. Additionally, efforts must be made to accommodate lower-income nations to protect their rights and not hold those responsible for a problem they did not contribute to equally. There is simply no doubt that a “business as usual” strategy is not a responsible course of action and will result in dire climate and health consequences.
Some good news is that the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that about 75% of methane emissions can be prevented, and further that 40-50% of the emissions can be avoided at no net cost. The IEA created a global Sustainable Development Scenario as part of Energy Technology Perspectives 2020. The report provides a map of the technologies the world can employ to reach net zero emissions targets. As IEA Executive Director Dr. Fatih Birol wrote when the report was released, “We need even more countries and businesses to get on board, we need to redouble efforts to bring energy access to all those who currently lack it, and we need to tackle emissions from the vast amounts of existing energy infrastructure in use worldwide that threaten to put our shared goals out of reach.”
During the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit, UN Environment and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition called on governments to join the Global Methane Alliance to significantly reduce methane emissions specifically from the oil and gas sector.” Participating countries must commit to either absolute methane reduction targets of at least 45% by 2025 and 60–75%by 2030, or to a near zero methane intensity target. Information on this methane focused, climate related initiative currently appears to be limited, but participants and progress will be worth watching and noting.
Currently, the United States, Russia, Iran, Canada, and China produce the most natural gas, while consumption is highest in the United States, the European Union, Russia, and China. If European countries are not considered as a group, Iran and Canada take 4th and 5th place, respectively. In terms of total greenhouse contributions, China leads with 28%, the United States is next at 15%, India follows with 7%, Russia with 5%, and “the rest of the world” contributes 21%. Clearly, a good deal of the responsibility for change falls on these top producing and contributing nations. Notably, Iran and Turkey are the only countries with a greater than 1% share of global greenhouse emissions which have not ratified the Paris Agreement, and the United States is scheduled to withdraw from the Agreement on November 4, 2020.
Best practices for how to decarbonize vary by location and use, but change will be needed in all sectors and all geographies. Information is not always easy to find or comprehensive for a few reasons, but the following climate notes and some specific gas information can give some idea of where top consuming nations or areas of note stand and what challenges they face or progress they have made or plan to make.
The United States is currently, unfortunately a nation of conflicting signals and politics when it comes to climate change policy, including regarding natural gas. Once an emerging climate leading country and early signatory to the Paris Agreement, the US stands at a critical moment prior to the upcoming election. In the US, fossil fuels produce over 60% of electricity, and according to the Energy Efficiency Administration, the country is not on a path to eliminate those emissions by 2030. This is not a surprise given the current state of US politics. In 2015, the Clean Power Plan was introduced to reduce CO2 emissions from electricity production by 32% from 2005 levels by 2030. The plan was replaced with a weaker plan by President Trump’s administration in 2019 (pending final litigation, which could take years). At the start of 2016, President Obama’s administration signed on to the Paris Agreement, with a plan submitted in 2015 to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% (below 2005 levels) by 2025. President Trump announced that the US would with draw from the Paris Agreement in 2017 (effective November 4, 1 day after the US presidential election). In 2016, President Obama signed a pledge with Canada to reduce methane emissions 40-45% below 2012 levels. This pledge was rolled back by President Trump in 2020. The lists of environmental policy rollbacks would not fit in this document. This turmoil can be confusing and damaging to relationships with other nations, and even companies doing business in the United States. Several large oil companies even stated that they did not wish to roll back the methane agreements.
Some good news reading the future of clean energy in the US is that an impressive plan created by the University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy called The 2035 Report lays out a vision for how the US can achieve 90% clean electricity by 2035, while lowering electric bills, saving lives and preserving health by the tens of thousands, and creating 500,00 more jobs annually. The plan relies on rapidly declining solar, wind and battery storage costs. It calls for no new natural gas plants, and in fact all coal plants are retired. Natural gas use declines to about 10% in this plan. A key challenge is that the plan assumes strong federal and state policy support. Without substantial policy change, the report cuts expected clean energy progress from 90% to 55%. Additional good news out of the US is that states have stepped in to fill the federal policy vacuum. 15 US states and territories have taken legislative or executive action towards 100 clean electricity. These states represent 55% of the US population and 40% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. The US Climate Alliance is made up of 24 states and two territories afforming a commitment to the Paris Agreement. Many state, local, tribal, business and other leaders are also part of “We are Still In,” a coalition of 35000 plus members committed to the Paris Agreement. Additionally, 160 cities, 150 businesses, and 12 utilities have also committed to 100% clean energy to net zero emissions.
In line with the Paris Agreement and the European Green New Deal, the European Union adopted a climate action roadmap in 2019, which aims for climate neutrality by 2050 and targets at least 40% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels) at least a 32% share for renewable energy, and at least 32.5% improvement in energy efficiency. Estimates are that gas demand may fall 30% between 2015 and 2030. A proposal has recently been made as part of a pending Climate Law Regulation to increase greenhouse gas emissions targets to a 55% reduction by 2030 (a target increase of 40%). Top Green New Deal goals include an economy where:
- No net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050
- Economic growth is decoupled from resource use
- No person and no place is left behind
Stated actions include:
- Investing in environmentally-friendly technologies
- Supporting industry to innovate
- Rolling out cleaner, cheaper and healthier forms of private and public transport
- Decarbonizing the energy sector
- Ensuring buildings are more energy efficient
- Working with international partners to improve global environmental standards
Europe has a fairly strong incentive to cut energy demand including reducing national gas consumption, as the continent depends on deliveries from Russia through pipelines already operating at fairly high capacities, while the EU is also retiring many coal and nuclear plants. LNG (liquid natural gas) growth in the future would help provide energy security, especially as LNG supply is growing and prices may remain low. The EU is also having debate over 32 gas projects which could be grandfathered in under existing policies to possibly become stranded assets.
Russia released a long term strategy in March, 2020 for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and diversifying economic development. Unfortunately, the World Resources Institute (WRI) seems correct in noting that this plan significantly “missed the mark,” especially given that the country is the world’s fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter. Russia’s draft plans target only a 33% reduction of emissions compared to 1990 levels (which were low, given political upheaval at the time). The country is developing 4 scenarios or pathways, and at best the country seems to reach carbon neutrality at about the end of the 21st century. Russia currently has .1% renewable energy, and the draft strategies do not seem to target much change in this mix anytime soon, even though the country concedes that it could meet five times the amount of electricity needed through renewable sources. Russia could also benefit greatly from strategies to reduce natural gas flaring and leakage – according to the World Bank, the country is responsible for approximately 15% of flaring globally (followed by Iran and Iraq, at 12% each). In addition to other damage, flaring may cause up to 40% of the climate-impacting black carbon, which melts ice faster in the Arctic. One study estimated that Russia may experience gas leaks at a rate of as much as 5-7%. Russia’s strategy may fall short, but planning and documenting could be a beginning, given that the country has joined the Paris Agreement and does recognize that the planet is changing and that this shift will bring both health and economic risks. As the largest exporter of fossil fuels, the country will certainly be affected by decreases in demand as other countries set more aggressive goals. Meanwhile, Russia apparently produced its highest levels of coal. Oil, and natural gas in 2019.
In a significant move for climate action, President Xi Jinping announced in September that China is committing to carbon neutrality by 2060. This is apparently the first time President Xi has spoken of a net zero goal. China hosts half of the world’s coal production capacity and has new coal-fired plants in development, after rolling back a ban on new plants in 2018. China is in a conflicted position, as the largest financier of both fossil fuel and renewable infrastructure worldwide. Natural gas production in China has grown significantly in the last decade, but this is one location where there’s an argument that switching from coal to modern natural gas plants could be climate positive, IF fugitive methane is controlled. China’s natural gas demand is predicted to increase by %166 between 2017 and 2040, but much of this represents a move away from coal. Demand is so great that China will soon become the largest LNG importer. It’s worth noting that China’s has the world’s largest installed capacity of hydro, solar and wind power, at 24% of its electricity generation, well above world averages, and that due to its relatively large population, per capita energy consumption is almost half that of the United States, though double the world average.
Africa is a continent to watch regarding natural gas and energy and climate policy. More than half a billion people will be added to the continent’s population by 2040. That could mean a lot of people wanting to drive or planning to install air conditioning, likely resulting in an energy demand 50% greater than today. Meanwhile, 600 million people in Africa lack energy access today, and 900 million people lack access to clean cooking. Current business-as-usual projections show a great increase in oil and gas demand, and in gas production due to recent discoveries ((40% of global gas discoveries between 2011 and 2018 were in Egypt, East Africa (Mozambique and Tanzania), West Africa (Senegal and Mauritania) and South Africa)), but there is hope that renewable energy can meet a significant portion of this demand instead. Today, Africa hosts less than 1% of world solar installations at just over 1 GW, but 17% of global population. With 7 of the 10 sunniest countries in the world, solar energy should be able to help provide a more sustainable energy future for Africa, with perhaps 90 GW of installed capacity by 2030, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). IRENA has produced an Africa 2030 Plan that shows up to 50% of renewables in the energy mix, relying heavily on modern biomass for cooking; hydropower; wind; and solar power. IEA built its current Africa sustainable energy scenario on 2063, a set of initiatives to plan for the next 50 years (counting from the call for the plan in 2013) with stated goals of sustainable economic development, political integration, improvements in democracy and justice, establishment of security and peace on the entire African continent, strengthening of cultural identity through an ‘African renaissance’ and pan-African ideals, gender equality, and political independence from foreign powers.” According to the IEA, “Africa could be the first continent to achieve a significant level of economic and industrial growth with cleaner energy sources playing a prominent role than other economies in the past.”
India has actually made great climate change progress in recent years. According to the IEA, “For a country of 1.4 billion people, the scale of these measures is hard to overstate. They serve as an inspiration for countries around the world that want to achieve similar progress in providing access to electricity and clean cooking, deploying renewables on a major scale and significantly improving energy efficiency.
“India’s energy demand is estimated to double by 2040, with electricity demand possibly tripling, which increases the likelihood of dependence on oil and gas imports growing. But Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and his ministers are showing strong leadership, planning implementing reforms aimed at achieving a secure, affordable and sustainable energy system that can also drive strong economic growth. Since 2000, more than 700 million people have gained access to electricity. The government has also implemented programs to provide LEDs to households and to connect 80 million households to LNG in an effort to reduce air pollution (an example where a form of gas will make sense in a low carbon energy future). India currently generates 21.22% of its electricity from renewable sources, and the country has committed to achieving 40% of its electricity generation from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 as a part of the Paris Agreement. The country’s Central Electric Authority mains for 57% of electric capacity from renewable resources by 2027.
Solutions– Reducing Dependence on Natural Gas
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, about 25% of manmade global warming is caused by methane, the principal ingredient of natural gas and the second most abundant greenhouse gas. Natural gas may emit less CO2 than coal or oil at the point of combustion, but natural gas still directly emits over 20% of world C02 emissions. The combination of these CO2 emissions with sometimes hard-to-believe high methane leak levels, and human and environmental impacts along the entire lifecycle of natural gas production and delivery have meant that natural gas has not been able to serve as a healthy bridge and has in fact harmed and continues to cause harm for future generations. Natural gas should have as small as possible a role to play in a clean energy future as a fossil fuel, and the gas we do continue to consume should be produced and delivered more cleanly.
Proper Accounting of Methane Leaks and Loss
It’s essential that the natural gas industry accurately measure leaks and losses from flaring and venting (otherwise known as “fugitive” methane). How can we best reduce what we do not yet know? On this front, there is some good news. First, the Paris Agreement requires members to regularly report greenhouse gas emissions and actions taken to reduce them to meet their Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, the intended commitments of each country. The reporting may be subject to current accounting flaws which likely will result in underestimating, but it’s a beginning. Parties are also supposed to submit long term plans, where they can communicate intentions to account better over time. One thought is that parties might be encouraged to improve if their states goals then do not match with their intended goals and also if these goals to not align with the 1.5-2 degree global warming limit.
In 2019, The International Energy Agency (IEA) created the Methane Tracker, a global, annual database of oil and gas methane emissions data, abatement options and costs, policy and regulatory efforts worldwide (national and subnational), and voluntary initiatives – across 70 countries. The Tracker pulls data from multiple sources, can play a key role in sharpening our understanding of when data conflicts, and how and whether we’re making progress. The policy database is particularly impressive, as is the abatement options list by country.
Satellites are an emerging technology being employed to assist with methane measurement. Key satellite benefits include that they can help find large emitting sources, and they are quick and comprehensive. In 2020, a satellite operated by data analytics company Kayyros found an average of 100 large emitters globally at any given time, producing the equivalent of 15% of estimated global oil and gas emissions. A challenge with satellites is that they do not measure as well in certain weather conditions, they can miss smaller leaks, and they work by recognizing heat – so they can detect flaring but not venting. The European Space Agency (ESA) has shared a sample of its global unusual methane level mapping data collected by its Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite.
Gas leaks are found in pipelines throughout communities. One way to find them is through the use of a Vehicle-Mounted Gas Leak Detector (RMLD). This technology was developed with support from the US EPA’s SBIR small business loan grant program. The devise sends out lasers and is able to detect leaks based on light frequencies absorbed. RMLDs were intended for use by surveyors walking to find leaks. But they can be mounted on top of a vehicle as well. The tool would eliminate the need to walk many leak detection routes and would therefore save labor costs. At 20mph, leaks can be detected as far away as 30 feet using this device. Pilot lights can be seen as far away as 100 feet. Whole communities are mapping gas leaks using this technology. EDF and google mapped 13 US cities using this type of technology in 2017 and 2018. Drones and planes can also be used in leak detection.
A point worth making is that most estimates do not include the full social cost of pollution. One of the most impressive features of The 2035 Report (US focused) was that data was presented and the case for a 90% clean energy future was made both with and without environmental and human health considerations factored in. It would be ideal if social costs were always shown for proper decisionmaking. Clean up costs and other externalities are costing “someone,” and often the taxpayer, even if they don’t directly play into the operator decision. But these costs certainly should be taken into consideration by policymakers.
Drastically Reduce Fugitive Methane
Methane escapes throughout the gas production and delivery process. For a non expert, it can be difficult to piece all the options together. But even an introduction can be helpful. Surprisingly , the IEA estimates that 40% of all methane emissions can be avoided at NO NET COST. And overall 75% of the emissions could be avoided. So why aren’t these immediately addressed? The top three reasons are a lack of information as to the problem itself or the cost to fix it, inadequate infrastructure to find a better use for fugitive emissions, and misaligned incentives where payback seems insufficient for the effort required to solve the problem (to the owner), especially where the social cost is not accounted for. The IEA estimates that action to reduce these leaks would directly result in a .07 degree climate mitigation. In other words, there is no excuse not to do this.
First, it’s important to find and repair the super emitters. These smaller number of large leaks are the cause of 90% of the methane emissions problem. As mentioned above, satellites are helping to identify some of these problematic pollution sites. One question is then what to do when these leaks are found, but big enough leaks do not serve anyone’s interest – resolving them will save the operator money.
Stopping flaring and venting is a subset of reducing fugitive methane, but they warrant their own entry. Gas is flared or vented when either it must be released for operations or safety, or when it does not seem practical or there isn’t a way to store the gas or move it to market. But as some of the suggestions below show, there are ways to capture and store gas, or to convert it to a liquid form for use on site or deferred transportation and use. Cheap gas almost seems to create a sense that the lost gas has little to no value, but it has some value and it certainly causes needless pollution. The Environmental Defense Fund also points out that investors are increasingly looking for strong ESG performance, and wasteful flaring is more likely to create a red flag.
The Methane Tracker’s top abatement options seem to focus on the production site and pipeline opportunities and include:
- Replace valves and pneumatic devices, motors and pumps, ad any other devices that emit gas as part of their functioning, with lower emitting devices, like electric ones
- Install emissions control devices
- Vapour recovery units (VRUs) – VRUS capture built up emissions in equipment
- Blowdown captures – Where and when gas blowdowns are needed to depressurize wellheads or equipment, including during start up and shutdown, gas can be recovered sent into a pipeline, instead of being vented or flared
- Install flares when needed, to prevent venting (which has a greater climate impact), including portable flares
- Install plungers to assist with relieving pressure in the well bore, instead of having an operator do this manually, to limit or eliminate leaks
- Leak Detection and Repair efforts (LDAR)
- Infrared cameras make methane leaks visible
- Alternate Technologies
- Install oxidation catalysts to reduce unburned emissions
- Employ microturbines to compress or liquefy gas for use at remote locations (prevents flaring and venting when the gas can’t be used on location)
- Lower pressure with pump-downs before maintenance (prevents the need to vent)
- Capture gas during re-work on existing wells (reduced emission or green completions)
Many of these technologies pay for themselves:
Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage technology (CCUS) that enables operators to temporarily store or use greenhouse gases more sustainably is critical for producing and consuming gas more cleanly in a low-carbon energy future. This technology can reduce environmental impacts, but it can also turn what used to be considered waste into an asset. Most importantly, CCUS prevents emissions from entering the atmosphere.
Don't Build (or Keep) Plants that Don’t Make Sense
As Jeff St John of Deloitte recently pointed out, the “Math Doesn’t Yet Add Up,” in many cases where 0% emissions goals have been set and yet there are no plans to retire the fossil fuel assets required to reach these goals (87% of coal under a 0% Plan in the US does not have a set date). Fossil fuel infrastructure financing means that society (and therefore customers) can continue to pay after a plant is no longer operating, known as the problem of stranded assets. Where it is clear that natural gas plants will not be needed for a significant percentage of their useful life, which can be up to 60 years, there should be the foresight now not to build them. This may be a difficult decision with the price of gas remaining low right now and into the foreseeable future – but increasing gas will absolutely conflict with stated climate goals and policies.
Similarly, plants that no longer make sense when health and climate impacts are calculated (when they clearly and directly cost society more than the operator can benefit, and a more cost competitive alternative is ready and available) should be retired. This step would likely require policy support.
Get Gas out of Buildings
For both environmental and health reasons, it’s important to keep gas out of buildings to the extent possible. Buildings have a long life so decisions about how to heat buildings and fuel appliances have a long impact. More than 30 US cities and counties have passed natural gas bans for new construction, though some of the bans may yet face legal challenges. Gas bans have so far tended to be enacted in communities with higher incomes, and they only affect new construction, which is a small percentage of buildings. As an electrification strategy, there may be options better aligned with equity, especially when a ban is not likely to pass or there are other community priorities, which can also have a greater impact. For example, a program for rebates on electric appliances might be received well and produce significant results. The state of Maine gives a substantial rebate for heat pumps, and has incented the installation of over 45,000 heat pumps in five years.
Electrification is a key concept which involves choosing high-efficiency electric technologies such as heating and cooling equipment, appliances, and vehicles even where fossil fuels are available, while also reducing overall emissions and costs. Instead of combusting on site, which has health implications as well, electrification means connecting to the grid, which is more efficient. While equipment can’t become more efficient over its lifetime, an additional benfit is that electric equipment can have a lower impact over its lifetime as and if the grid becomes more efficient. (*This magnified impacts argument does not make as much sense in areas where a high percentage of energy is produced by coal, but there are also health and emissions reasons to electrify everywhere). In 2016, Stanford Professor Mark Jacobsen estimated that world savings could add up to 42% if we could just decide to “electrify it all.” Due to significant building performance improvements from efficient construction and energy efficiency gains, natural gas could decrease by up to half in 2050 from 2017 levels, but this is an aggressive estimate that relies on significant policy support. It’s worth noting that 75% of natural gas in buildings is consumed in 10 markets (with the US, Russia, China and Japan at 50%).
Energy Efficiency is Key
An argument is frequently now made that we should view energy efficiency measures and decisions as an alternate fuel choice, instead of just an abatement. This is because efficiency alone can improve global energy intensity by 3% annually. Home and building retrofits can save 10-40% energy use, while a passive house project can reduce heating by as much as 70%. Additional tactics include: building low energy and resource intensive buildings, low energy cooling, smart building technology and controls, electrification of space and water heating, efficient appliances, smarter manufacturing, increased fuel economy, reduced travel, freight and aviation improvements, and reducing electric transmission efficiency losses. Between 2000 and 2018, a UK energy efficiency push resulted in a decrease of energy used in space heating of 13%. By 2017, 2/3 of homes had efficient boilers, and insulation in walls had risen from 35% to 67%.
Another way to be energy efficient might be also to reduce use. It’s tempting to expect if not demand the immediate and extreme reduction of all fossil fuels. We can indeed point some fingers and insist that energy producers start and increase (and sincerely devote their companies to) efforts to drastically reduce emissions immediately, and we should demand that national, state, and local governments do better. But to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently by midcentury, it’s going to take an all-of-the-above effort that involves everyone – policymakers, energy providers and distributors, and businesses and residential consumers as well. If we only expect others to invent better technologies while turning up the heat mid-winter or refusing to make energy efficiency improvements to our home and offices, then the goal becomes that much harder to reach.
Invest Heavily in Renewables
Solar and wind costs have declined rapidly in recent years, and these renewable energy sources now make up 10% of global electricity (12% in the US), already doubling their share of global electricity production since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. Rates are as high as 33% in the UK and 21% across the EU. For 67% of the world, solar and wind now provide the cheapest power option. According to Enel Green Power CEO, Antonio Cammisecra, “In many countries, we observe that it is more convenient to build new wind or solar than operate existing thermal assets. This is really just a big, big phenomenon that is happening in major economies but also in emerging countries we invest.” But for some reason, most countries still invest less than 1% of GDP in renewables, except for South America and Chile which invest 1.4%.
Indeed there is a general consensus among energy experts that renewables need to “speed up” if we’re going to reach zero carbon goals by mid century. According to the IEA, low-carbon investment will have to increase 2.5 times 2018 levels by 2030. Electric vehicles have been a recent bright spot, with a growth rate of 70% in 2018, with battery storage investment also increasing 45% in 2018. The current coronavirus pandemic will negatively affect 2020, but IEA suggests that economic recovery packages be used to stimulate renewable energy investments.
Batteries are also essential to powering a zero carbon future, and have seen tremendous price declines since 2010 (76%). Batteries help provide grid stability, as they provide energy at times when renewable (or other) resources are not producing. One challenge is that to truly ensure reliability through a range of predicted conditions, battery capacity must be increased. Batteries are currently competitive at moving 2-4 hours of natural gas production, and 6 hours is within reach. According to John Woolard at WRI, until batteries decease in cost by a factor of 100 more, fossil fuel resources will be needed to provide power during periods of intermittency to assure 24/7 reliability.
Strong policy and government support at the national, subnational, and local level is clearly needed to reach climate goals, especially where societal costs outweigh those of producers. Top policy support can include the following ideas to repair information, infrastructure and financial gaps, but note that this is a complex topic and these are not exhaustive:
- Aggressive clean energy standards
- Require leak detection and repair
- Clean energy investment and production tax credits
- Renewable portfolio standards
- Long term transmission/infrastructure planning
- Reduce any unfair costs associated with changing transmission infrastructure to align with new technologies and equipment
- Streamline renewable energy and transmission siting
- Refinance plant assets so they can be retired when the environmental and health costs outweigh the financial incentives
- Rework energy markets to reward flexibility
- Facilitate the integration of renewables on interconnected grids
- Reform utilities business models to incent responsible, efficient management
- Specifically, align incentives to fix leaks – it must be financially rewarding (or required) to fix a leak than to drill the next well or “not to” fix the leak.
- Invest in R&D to develop the rest of the technologies needed to get to net zero emissions
- Advance efforts to accelerate global clean energy, including information sharing
- Benefits for local communities transitioning away from fossil fuel production
- Health benefits
- Pension support
- Local training and investment programs to help with employment
- Incentives and programs
- Energy audits
- Purchase of efficient equipment
- Labeling programs for efficient appliances and equipment
Uses for Natural Gas in a Clean Energy Future
Projections do not show natural gas disappearing, and there are limited positive roles natural gas can play in a low carbon energy future, especially if all effort are taken to minimize methane leakage and the health and environmental consequences of natural gas. As a part of a diverse electricity system and with sufficient regulatory oversight, natural gas can help mitigate the effects of energy demand fluctuation. Germany is currently producing an impressive amount of renewable energy, and yet without sufficient battery storage available to cover intermittency, the country has to rely on coal or nuclear plants when solar activity is insufficient. Coal plants must operate at 50% capacity to be ready when needed, and it takes days to stop and start a coal plant. This is a situation where a new flexible gas plant (with minimized leaks, and as opposed to a combined cycle plant that must still run at about 40%, and required 4-6 hours to shut down) can fit the bill, ready in 5 minutes or less and only operating when needed. This type of plant does not resolve all of the issues related to natural gas and methane, but it does keep use as low as possible. Where renewable energy production is high, there has to be sufficient coverage for the higher periods of volatility.
The Liquified or Liquid Natural Gas market is expected to grow at 5% per year. (LNG) is natural gas in its liquid form, which stores at -260 degrees Fahrenheit and therefore must be stored and transported through special equipment designed to handle these temperatures. As a liquid, LNG can be used as a fuel, or it can be warmed through a regasification process to become natural gas again. LNG is appealing, as the large volumes of gas from the shale fracking boom have kept prices low. It also stores in 1/600th of the space required for natural gas, and appears relatively safe to ship as it is only flammable exactly when mixed at 5-15% of gas to air. Importantly, LNG allows gas that would have been wasted before due to a lack of pipeline or storage method to be saved instead of wasted. LNG can also help with peak/volatility management. LNG is expected to grow at 10% per year through 2030, but this may easily change.
Vehicles powered by LNG, propane, or compressed natural gas (CNG) run cleaner than cars that run on gasoline or diesel. These fuels may not make sense for cars, partially due to the lack of infrastructure and due to the amount of fuel that can fit in a vehicle (LNG produces less energy than gasoline for the volume), but they do make sense for trucking or industrial fleets. LNG and CNG currently make up about 4% of US transportation fuel.
Gas will continue to be used in heavy industry as it’s cheaper than oil and burns cleaner than coal. Heavy industry also operates at high temperatures, there aren’t currently good alternatives to natural gas. Where gas is more expensive, bioenergy may be competitive, and hydrogen may one day be competitive, but the economics aren’t there yet.
Gas will also remain competitive in marine transportation, primarily as LNG. There aren’t good lower-carbon intensive alternatives, but gas may be able to help the industry reach a 50% reduction target by 2050. Growth here will depend on natural gas being seen as producing lower emissions and an investment in infrastructure.
In the past, gas has been used in place of coal or oil plants in what was known as a coal or oil-to-gas switching. This could still be helpful as an approach in the Middle East or in some parts of China, but it only works where low carbon alternatives are not available (or competitive, but that’s economically and not an environmental or health argument, unless all social factors are factored in). Many switching opportunities have already occurred, but it's also not clear that this switch provided a net climate benefit given the high methane emissions rates.
Natural Gas and Equity
UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, attainable and modern energy for all. This is a strong and worthy vision, and yet it’s complex and will take work and a long time to accomplish – past even the goals of a zero carbon energy future. Even in the most aggressive sustainable energy plans, we do not see energy access for all, and where we see energy access it’s often not affordable for all and the consequences of producing this energy often fall on the poorest communities who can not always protect or defend themselves. In looking at an energy system, we need to ask who gets the benefits and who pays the costs. What are the good jobs, and who do they go to? What are the health impacts, and are those impacted able to pay for them? Do those who profit give back to communities?
In the 2019 World Energy Outlook, the IEA recognized deep disparities in the global energy market. IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol called for, “strong leadership from policy makers, as governments hold the clearest responsibility to act and have the greatest scope to shape the future.” She was correct, though all of us have the responsibility to ask what we need to do to be fair, and what we can do to limit the impact of climate change, for ourselves and others. That said we all need to be able to trust our policymakers to represent us well, as they do have a wider perspective and both wider and more direct, focused responsibilities to constituents as well. Unfortunately, we have the questions right now, and not as much the answers. Equity and energy deserves a lot more exploration.
The world sits at the edge of a cliff, at a truly perilous moment. We have the tools and we have the way, and yet experts are saying with some seeming disbelief and with definite frustration that we are somehow not on the path. We can reduce emissions, we can clean up our systems and sometimes we can take these steps with no or low cost. There are some reasons for optimism to be sure. Renewable energy prices are falling. Really smart people are drafting “sustainable scenarios” that show where we can go “with solid policy support and leadership.” So the good news is that our goals are theoretically possible to reach with hard work. The bad news is that we’re inching into this decade we have left to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and we still don’t quite recognize the immediate need to all act enough, as a global community.
Interestingly, we set out to write a brief piece on why natural gas is problematic, why we need to abandon natural gas. It’s true that natural gas causes unacceptable health and environmental harm, especially in a system where methane leaks are out of control. And it’s true that gas was “sold” to many as a healthy bridge when it really wasn’t. But we’ve affirmed in the end that nothing is simple, especially in the global energy world. There’s a pretty strong clear case to stop using natural gas in buildings in the markets where this is possible. There’s of course also a great case for switching to renewables whenever we can. And to reducing consumption when we can, because as a global market, we demand a heck of a lot of energy (and some of us more than others) even as our concern for the planet grows. But natural gas also isn’t going anywhere, and this means we have to shift some thought to minimizing or repairing the dangers, especially in communities and people directly affected by production or those who suffer health effects, and we have to create a system where we use as little of this fuel as possible. It was indeed not a healthy bridge, but it looks like natural gas is some part of the puzzle in the end (until batteries improve 100x more, at least, or until some completely new disruptive idea bursts onto the scene). Hopefully, thinking a little more deeply than we might have didn’t put everyone to sleep and might help some who care about climate change and public health to think a little differently about where positive energy might be spent, and why. “Gas is bad,” might fit on a bumper sticker as many things try to these days, but that logic isn’t maybe as helpful as possible to a policymaker who needs to decide what policies and actions to support to best move forward for people and planet.
Image: Getty/Jeffrey Greenberg via: Center for American Progress:
Edits and corrections to this piece are more than welcome.
For further reading:
Ten Years Ago Today: Natural Gas Could Be as Bad as Oil and Coal – Treehugger
A Bridge Backward? The Financial Risks of the “Rush to Gas” in the US Power Sector - Rocky Mountain Institute
Natural Gas as a Bridge Fuel Measuring the Bridge – Center for Sustainable Energy Calling Natural Gas a ‘Bridge Fuel/ is Alarmingly Deceptive – Sightline
Methane’s 20- and 100- Year Climate Effect is Like ‘CO2 are on Steroids’ – Sightline
Natural Gas Leaks are a Much Bigger Problem than We Thought - Grist
Cheap Natural Gas Is Making It Very Hard to Go Green - Treehugger
How Much Natural Gas Leaks? – Scientific American
The US Gas Industry is Leaking Way More Methane than Ever Before - CNBC
Major US Cities are Leaking Methane at Twice the Raye Previously Believed – Science Magazine
The US natural gas industry is leaking way more methane than previously thought. Here’s why that matters – The Conversation
Is Fracking Safe? The 10 Most Controversial Claims About Natural Gas Drilling – Popular Mechanics
How Has Fracking Changed Our Future? – National GeographicNatural Gas Nation: EIA Sees U.S. Future Shaped By Fracking – National Geographic
Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas - Union of Concerned Scientists
Fracking by the Numbers – Key Impacts of Dirty Drilling at the State and National Level
Global Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas - International Energy Agency (IEA)
Statistical Review of World Energy, 2019 – BP
Statistical Review of World Energy, 2020 - BP
IEA Methane Tracker policies database - International Energy Agency (IEA)
Methane Tracker 2020 – International Energy Agency (IEA)
Our World in Data – Energy
Air/Water Pollution Focus:
Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas – Union of Concerned Scientists
Natural Gas – Why is It Dirty? - Green America
The Price of Fossil Fuels – Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA)
Why Utilities Have Little Incentive to Plug Leaking Natural Gas – Environment America
Living Near a Fracking Site May Increase Your Risk of Asthma – LiveScience
IE Questions: Is Fracking Dangerous? - Inside Energy
The Health Effects of Fracking in Colorado - 350 Org
Gas Stoves and Appliances:
Gas Stoves: Health and Air Quality Impacts and Solutions - Rocky Mountain Institute, Physicians forSocial Responsibility, Mothers Out Front, Sierra Club
Gas Stoves are Making People Sicker and Exposing Children to a Higher Risk for
Asthma, Study Claims - Science Times
Yet Another Study Concludes That Gas Stoves Are Really Bad for Kids' Health - Treehugger
Killing of Trees/Vegetation:
Tree Deaths in Urban Settings Are Linked to Leaks from Natural Gas Pipelines Below Streets – Inside Climate News
Gas leaks: A Hidden Culprit for Dead Trees – StateImpact Pennsylvania, NPR
Natural Gas Leaks: A $30 Billion Opportunity and Global Warming Menace – Forbes
Aligning fossil fuel production with the Paris Agreement – Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI)
How will Natural Gas Fare in the Energy Transition? Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
The Truth about Natural Gas – We Don’t Need to Build Anymore - Utility Dive
Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure – National Academy of the United States of America
Gas infrastructure leaks methane: fix it, or accelerate to clean energy – energypost.eu
Setting the Record Straight About Renewable Energy – World Resources Institute (WRI)
The 2035 Report: Plummeting Solar, Wind and Battery Costs can Accelerate our Clean Energy Future (US focused) - University of California Berkeley, Goldman School of Public Policy, GridLab
Rewiring the US for Economic Recovery - Energy Innovation Policy & Technology LLC
States Are Laying a Road Map for Climate Leadership – American Progress
The Future of Natural Gas in North America – McKinsey & Company
Natural Gas as a Bridge Fuel – Center for Sustainable Energy
Why Flexible Gas Must be Part of the Path to 100% Decarbonization – greentechmedia
New “Flexible” Power Plants Sway to Keep Up with Renewables – National Geographic
World Energy Outlook 2019 – International Energy Agency (IEA)
Technology Perspectives 2020 - International Energy Agency (IEA)
Global Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas - International Energy Agency (IEA)
Article Thumbnail image:
Wisconsin State Journal: https://madison.com/wsj/news/local/environment/study-transition-to-renewable-energy-could-create-162-000-jobs-in-wisconsin/article_47d444ea-2402-50d3-b018-bd363ab11eb0.html
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