Quantcast
Energy company filings (shapefile), Energy Information Administration. Leanne Abraham, Alyson Hurt and Katie Park/NPR

Thousands of Miles of Pipelines Enrage Landowners, Threaten the Future of Our Planet

By Kristen Lombardi and Jamie Smith Hopkins

They landed, one after another, in 2015: plans for nearly a dozen interstate pipelines to move natural gas beneath rivers, mountains and people's yards. Like spokes on a wheel, they'd spread from Appalachia to markets in every direction.

Together these new and expanded pipelines—comprising 2,500 miles of steel in all—would double the amount of gas that could flow out of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. The cheap fuel will benefit consumers and manufacturers, the developers promise.

Keep reading... Show less
www.facebook.com

With All the Fracking Going On, How Much Methane Is Leaking?

Natural gas is often considered the cleanest fossil fuel, but could it actually be dirtier than coal?

Watch as New York Times reporter Mark Bittman, in the above Year's of Living Dangerously video, investigates how much methane is leaking at fracking wells. Find out how the natural gas industry's claims compare to what scientists are reporting.

See what happens when Gaby Petron, an atmospheric scientist with NOAA, converts her van into a mobile methane detector and sets out across northeastern Colorado for two years, taking thousands of readings to uncover the truth.

An oil and gas drilling platform in Australian waters. CSIRO / Wikimedia Commons

Natural Gas Is Not the Answer, New Study Finds

By Paul Brown

Natural gas will have to be phased out along with coal if the world is to be kept safe from dangerous climate change. And that seems likely to have to happen far sooner than most official forecasts, according to a new report.

If countries want to reach their Paris climate agreement goals of limiting the long-term world temperature rise to 1.5°C, then many of the proposals to increase gas production and distribution will be unnecessary. New terminals and pipelines will never be fully used and will become stranded assets.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

The Elephant in the Room That Smells Like Natural Gas

By Julie McNamara

A curious thing happened in the aftermath of President Trump attempting to sign away the past eight years of work on climate and clean energy: The public face of progress didn't flinch. From north to south and east to west, utilities and businesses and states and cities swore their decarbonization compasses were unswerving; yes, they said, we're still closing coal plants, and yes, yes!, we're still building ever more wind and solar—it just makes sense.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

Widely-Opposed Pipeline 'Confirms Worst Fears' After Two Spills Into Ohio Wetlands

Energy Transfer Partners' new Rover Pipeline has spilled millions of gallons of drilling fluids into Ohio's wetlands. Construction of the $4.2 billion project only began last month.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
More than 400 people came to Albany, New York on April 5, 2016 to urge the Cuomo administration to reject shale gas projects in New York state. Photo credit: Erik McGregor

Cuomo Denies Permit for Northern Access Pipeline

By Kimberly Ong

New York State blocked the Northern Access Project on April 7, a pipeline that would have carried fracked gas from Pennsylvania to Canada via New York. This is a huge victory not just for New Yorkers but for the entire planet.

Keep reading... Show less

Climate Change All But Ignored Again at Presidential Debate

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met in St. Louis last night for the 2nd Presidential Debate moderated by Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC. It wasn't until the bitter end that the issue of energy and climate change came into the discussion when Town Hall participant Ken Bone asked:

"What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?"

Trump responded:

"Absolutely. I think it's such a great question, because energy is under siege by the Obama administration. Under absolute siege. The EPA—the Environmental Protection Agency—is killing these energy companies. And foreign companies are now coming in, buying so many of our different plants and then rejiggering the plant so they can take care of their oil. We are killing, absolutely killing our energy business in this country."

Thanks to NPR's Scott Horsley, we find Trump's response skewed. Horsley noted, while fact checking Trump's response:

Domestic oil and gas production have increased steadily during President Obama's time in office. The U.S. has been the world's leading producer of natural gas since 2011 and the top producer of oil since 2013.

The Energy Information Administration says gasoline prices averaged $2.25 a gallon last week—about seven cents a gallon cheaper than a year ago, and about 20 cents a gallon less than Obama's first year in office.

Clinton's initial response to Bone's question, "We are, however, producing a lot of natural gas which serves as a bridge to more renewable fuels. And I think that's an important transition," took a hard hit on Twitter:

However, Clinton followed her bridge fuel remarks saying she has "a comprehensive energy policy but it really does include fighting climate change because I think that is a serious problem" and that she supports "moving to more clean and renewable energy as quickly as we can. Because I think we can be the 21st century clean energy superpower and create millions of new jobs and businesses."

Sierra Club's Executive Director Michael Brune praised Clinton for her plans. "With each answer tonight, Hillary Clinton showed that she has thought about the challenges facing our country, developed solutions to address them and—as even Donald Trump admitted—she'll never give up fighting for the American people," Brune said.

"By contrast, there is a reason people are fleeing from Donald Trump in droves. Neither his temperament nor his ideas are a match for what the country needs."

Greenpeace USA's Executive Director Annie Leonard showed disappointment at the lack of conversation on climate change during last night's debate.

"In addition to more targeted insults to women, communities of color and immigrants on a regular basis, Donald Trump also insults the entire human race on a daily basis with his aggressive denial and inaction regarding climate change," Leonard said.

"The candidates spent very little time talking about climate change during tonight's debate but it is on the minds of so many Americans, especially as Hurricane Matthew continues to take a heavy toll here and in Haiti," Leonard continued. "Climate change demands the attention of both candidates and their parties, and it is shameful that it was given so little."

Sponsored

Why Natural Gas Is a Bridge Fuel to Nowhere

By Emily J. Gertz

For decades, coal-fired power dominated the U.S. energy supply—and was a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions.

But a combination of factors including cheap natural gas, stronger pollution controls, increasing investment in renewable power and improved energy efficiency have pushed coal's share of the energy market down to 33 percent and with it the carbon-intensive fuel's share of the nation's greenhouse pollution.

Natural-gas-fired power equaled coal's 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon pollution in 2015, according to the report, while natural gas use was 81 percent higher than coal's.

As a result, this year will be the first when CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants drop below those from natural gas, according to a new analysis from the federal Energy Information Agency (EIA).

Natural-gas-fired power equaled coal's 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon pollution in 2015, according to the report, while natural gas use was 81 percent higher than coal's. The EIA estimates that natural gas' share of energy-related CO2 will exceed that of still-declining coal by about 10 percent this year.

CO2 emissions are the leading driver of global warming and make up 81 percent of the nation's known 6.8 billion metric tons of annual greenhouse gas pollution, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). About 50 percent of those emissions come from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and power industrial facilities.

"Coal has been declining fairly steadily since around 2007," said Doug Vine, senior energy fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a climate and energy think tank. "Some of the initial declines were a result of the Great Recession. But in the middle of the recession was when we began to experience the large natural gas boom."

A 2012 EPA regulation sharply reducing legal levels of mercury, arsenic and other toxic pollutants from smokestacks has also pushed utilities to invest in alternatives to coal-fired power, Vine said.

While environmentalists have long advocated an end to coal-fired power for the sake of both the climate and public health, some say that increasing reliance on natural gas is the wrong energy strategy.

"The report is a reminder that, as I say, there's good news and bad news about natural gas," said David Hawkins, the director of the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "The good news is gas has half the carbon of coal and the bad news is gas has half the carbon of coal."

To avoid catastrophic climate change, "we have to move our society to a zero-emission economy, in a period of time that is less than the eligibility date for Social Security of kids being born today," he added. "It makes sense to keep using the existing natural gas power plants to keep backing out of coal, but we have to invest in new zero-emissions energy sources like wind, solar and efficiency" rather than continuing to spend billions of dollars on new natural gas infrastructure.

The primary ingredient of natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas about four times more powerful at trapping heat than CO2. Methane accounts for 11 percent of known U.S. greenhouse emissions, according to the EPA. But leaks from natural gas and oil production infrastructure, leading sources of methane pollution, are not included in that figure.

Just one recent incident, the massive natural gas leak at California's Aliso Canyon storage field between October 2015 and February 2016, added the equivalent of around 4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

A recent NASA study determined that around 250 methane leaks from natural gas and oil facilities, spread across 1,200-square-miles of the Four Corners area, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet, were the sources of a 2,500-square-mile cloud of methane hanging over the region.

"There is a lot of uncertainty about how much methane is leaking and from where. I've seen estimates from 1 to 9 percent of total production escaping," said Jeff Deyette, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It doesn't take much methane to leak before it becomes on par worse than coal from a total emissions standpoint. That's another risk factor of utilities continuing to switch from coal to natural gas and policy makers pushing for more use of natural gas."

Both NRDC and Union of Concerned Scientists advocate stronger regulations to control methane leaks. But "gas prices are so cheap right now, that the industry isn't investing in the technologies to capture and close up those leaks," Deyette said.

Vine agreed that given the importance of keeping global temperature increases under 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit—the goal set by the Paris climate agreement—reliance on natural gas for energy would not be a good long-term strategy for the U.S. "Natural gas can be thought of as a complementary component to wind and solar while those resources continue to expand," because "most of the natural gas electricity-generating technologies can be ramped up and down flexibly."

He also saw a role for U.S. sales of natural gas to industrializing economies seeking to lower their own greenhouse gas emissions. "It allows us to export a lower-emitting fuel to places like China and India," Vine said. "It can help some developing countries by offering them alternatives to coal, a higher-emitting fossil fuel."

"Developing countries have plenty of renewable energy potential," Deyette countered. "We're not trying to put landlines through all of Africa, right? We're using cell phone technology. In the same vein, we don't want to swap one fossil fuel out for another when we have the capacity to leapfrog to totally renewable technologies in those countries."

"We should be exporting renewable energy, grid integration and battery technologies as a country," he said. "That should be our priority."

This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.

Why Natural Gas Is Not a Bridge Fuel

By Zeke Hausfather

For the past century, coal has been king, providing the majority of U.S. energy for electricity generation.

But a combination of new federal and state environmental policies and a glut of cheap natural gas (mostly from hydraulic fracturing or fracking) have led to a dramatic shift during the past decade, with coal dropping from 50 percent to 32 percent of our electricity generation and gas increasing from 18 percent to 33 percent.

Just under a third of existing coal-based power generation in the U.S. has been shut down and the Obama administration has aggressively embraced the replacement of coal with gas as a key part of meeting its 2030 climate targets. We are quickly traveling down a gas bridge away from coal. But will this shift actually be a good thing for the climate?

Slashing Emissions at the Plant

At first glance, replacing coal with natural gas seems like a good (though not great) step in combating climate change.

Overall, carbon dioxide emissions from new gas power plants are as much as 66 percent lower than those of existing coal power plants. About half of this reduction is due to differing carbon intensities of the fuels (natural gas emits 40 percent less carbon than coal per unit of heat). The other half is due to the higher generation efficiency of natural gas (new natural gas plants convert heat to power at upwards of 50 percent efficiency, while typical coal plants only operate at about 33 percent efficiency).

A way to reduce emissions by as much as two thirds while also saving money seems like a no-brainer for climate policy. But natural gas has an Achilles' heel that makes the question much harder to answer.

Direct CO2 emissions from electricity generation in grams per kWh. Based on calculations from Hausfather 2015.

Leaking Gas

Natural gas is predominately composed of methane. When methane is burned to produce electricity or heat, it releases carbon dioxide and water vapor.

But not all natural gas produced is burned. Some of it is leaked at gas wells, in compressor stations, from pipelines or in storage. Methane is a powerful but short-lived greenhouse gas. While it is in the atmosphere, it is around 120 times more powerful than carbon dioxide per ton, but it quickly decomposes through chemical reactions and only about 20 percent of the methane emitted today will remain after 20 years.

Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, has a much longer atmospheric lifetime. About half of the carbon dioxide emitted today will be around in 100 years (and virtually none of the methane will be) and about 15 percent of today's carbon dioxide will still be in the atmosphere in 10,000 years.

This difference in longevity makes a comparison between the two tricky. Essentially, how much methane emissions today matter for the climate depends largely on the timeframe you are considering. If you care about avoiding warming later in the century (as the United Nations does with its 2C warming by 2100 target), there is relatively little problem with short-term methane emissions, as long as they are phased out in the next few decades. If you care about short-term changes, however, methane is a much bigger deal.

How much methane leaks from the natural gas system is very much an open question. For a long time official U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) numbers suggested the emissions were small and falling fast, only amounting to around 1.5 percent of total production.

But dozens of independent academics doing research using aircraft, satellite data and other instruments have consistently found higher emissions than officially reported.

Adam Brandt at Stanford University published a high-profile paper in the journal Science in 2014 summarizing all the research to date. He found that overall emissions were likely between 25 and 75 percent higher than reported by EPA, suggesting that actual natural gas leakage rates are probably somewhere between 2 and 4 percent of gas production. (Some researchers have found leakage as high as 10 percent for individual fields, but there isn't evidence that those findings are characteristic of the sector as a whole).

How Much Do Leaks Matter?

What do these leakage rates mean for the viability of natural gas as a bridge fuel? Again, it comes down to a question of time frame.

Let's look at a simple example of a big coal power plant. One option is to leave it alone for the next 30 years, at which point it will be replaced by renewable energy.

Another option is to replace it with gas today and replace that gas with renewables in 30 years.

The figure below shows the climate impacts over time (measured in units called radiative forcing) of existing coal (the dashed black line), new high-efficient coal plants (the solid black line) and new gas plants (the green line). The potential range of natural gas leakage is expressed by the gray envelope around the green line, with 1 percent leakage at the bottom and 6 percent leakage at the top (the green line itself shows a 3 percent leakage case).

Adapted from Figure 3 of Hausfather 2015.

If leakage is higher than 3 percent, there are some periods in the next 30 years when gas will result in more climate impact than new coal plants. If leakage is higher than 4 percent, there are some periods when gas will be worse for the climate than existing coal plants.

But no matter what the leakage rate is, gas will still cut the climate impact by 50 percent in 2100 compared to new coal and 66 percent compared to existing coal. So whether switching from coal to gas is beneficial in this simple example depends on how you value near-term or longer-term warming.

The importance of near-term warming is tough to assess. Climate models, by and large, don't predict any irreversible changes in periods as short as 30 years and potential tipping points in the climate generally depend more on the peak warming that occurs (which in nearly all foreseeable cases would occur after 2050).

But there is much about the Earth's climate that is still unknown and scientists can't categorically rule out the potential for shorter-term warming to cause unforeseen impacts.

With longer-term warming, the impacts are much more clear (and generally more dire). By the end of the century, we'd expect around 4C warming in a world where we didn't take any action to slow emissions. As the damages of climate change tend to increase exponentially with rising temperatures, many economists argue that the biggest impacts of climate change will occur later in the century and that the main focus should be on reducing longer-term warming.

What About Choosing Neither Coal Nor Natural Gas?

There is yet another wrinkle in the comparison of gas and coal. If they were the only two ways we could generate electricity, the analysis would be fairly straightforward.

But there are many zero or near-zero carbon energy sources that are preferable to both coal and gas, including wind, solar and nuclear power. In a perfect world, we would skip the gas bridge entirely and immediately replace all the coal plants with renewables.

The challenge is that although renewables are increasingly cost competitive with coal in some parts of the country, on average, they are still more expensive. Renewables are also often intermittent, producing less power when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow and incurring additional expenses for energy storage technologies to help balance out the grid, at least once renewables reach a high enough percent of generation.

On the other hand, renewables are getting cheaper and although it might not be practical to replace all coal plants with renewables immediately, it's definitely possible to do so in the next decade if renewables continue to fall in price. If we replace coal with gas today, we've sunk costs into new gas infrastructure that we might be loath to replace a few years later with renewables. In this way, a gas bridge could delay the widespread adoption of renewables.

It comes down to this: If we think that coal plants would stick around for 15 years or more in the absence of gas, its probably better to replace them with gas today. If we think we will have the political will to retire gas plants early, we could also potentially benefit from a gas bridge.

But if we end up locking in gas infrastructure that sticks around and delays renewables, we might be better off eschewing a gas bridge even if it means sticking around with coal a bit longer.

It's a tough problem with no simple answers, but the one thing we know for sure is that if natural gas is to serve as a bridge away from coal, it had better be a short one.

Sponsored

mail-copy

Get EcoWatch in your inbox