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Capturing the Fugitives: Reducing Methane Emissions from Natural Gas

The rapid expansion of natural gas development in the United States has been a double-edged sword. While natural gas supporters are quick to point out its economic benefits and green attributes—natural gas produces roughly half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal during combustion—this isn’t the whole story. Natural gas comes with environmental consequences, including risks to air and water quality.

One risk is “fugitive methane emissions,” potent greenhouse gases that escape into the atmosphere throughout the natural gas development process. This methane—which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year timeframe—contributes to global warming and undercuts the climate advantage that cleaner-burning natural gas has over coal and diesel. (Learn more about fugitive methane emissions in our recent blog post.)

Despite the controversy surrounding natural gas development, energy forecasts suggest that natural gas is here to stay. Fortunately, several pathways are available to limit the climate impacts associated with its development. WRI just released a working paper, Clearing the Air: Reducing Upstream Greenhouse Gas Emissions from U.S. Natural Gas Systems, which outlines a number of state and federal policies and industry best practices to cost-effectively reduce fugitive methane emissions. We find that with the right amount of reductions, natural gas does offer advantages from a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions perspective over coal and diesel.

Clearing the Air

Reducing Upstream Greenhouse Gas Emissions from U.S. Natural Gas Systems

This working paper focuses primarily on evaluating and reducing upstream methane emissions in the natural gas sector. We outline a number of state and federal policies and industry best practices to cost-effectively reduce fugitive methane emissions.

A Close Look at Fugitive Methane Emissions from Natural Gas

Natural gas is booming in the United States. Production has increased by 20 percent in the last five years, fueled largely by technological advances in shale gas extraction. Other countries--including China--are now studying our experience with this abundant new resource.

But the growing role of natural gas in the U.S. energy mix hasn’t come without controversy. Natural gas development poses a variety of environmental risks. In addition to habitat disruption and impacts on local water and air quality, one of the most significant concerns is the climate impact resulting from the “fugitive methane emissions” that escape into the atmosphere from various points along the natural gas supply chain.

So what are fugitive methane emissions, and how big of a problem are they? How do emissions from natural gas compare to those from coal? And are there ways to mitigate them? The answers to these questions will help us better understand how natural gas development will affect climate change.

New Data Reveals Rising Coal Use

New data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reveals a troubling trend: Coal-fired power generation—and its associated greenhouse gas emissions—were on the rise as 2012 came to an end.

According to the data, which was released yesterday, natural gas prices have risen significantly since April of 2012, prompting a rise in coal-fired electric generation (see figure below). This increase marks a dramatic change from the trends we’ve seen in the United States over the past several years. U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the power sector had been falling, mostly due to more electricity being generated by renewables, slowed economic growth, and a greater use of low-cost natural gas, which produces roughly half the CO2 emissions of coal during combustion.

The new uptick in gas prices and coal use suggests that we cannot simply rely on current market forces to meet America’s emissions-reduction goals. In fact, EIA projects that CO2 emissions from the power sector will slowly rise over the long term. To keep emissions on a downward trajectory, the Administration must use its authority to prompt greater, immediate reductions by putting in place emissions standards for both new and existing power plants.

Wasting Assets

Natural Resources in the National Income Accounts

Using Indonesia's timber, petroleum, and soils as examples, this report tests and applies a methodology for integrating natural resource depletion into a revised national accounting system that can more accurately reflect economic reality....

Money to burn? The high costs of energy subsidies

Focusing on the role of energy in the global economy, this frequently quoted report notes that unstable and unsustainable energy prices have brought about many problems -- high inflation rates, world recession, and mountain debt burdens.

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