The Natural Gas Industry Has a Methane Problem

Oil and gas operations leak this potent greenhouse gas far more than previously thought, and (par for the course) the Trump administration is making the situation worse.

June 07, 2019
A flare burns by a fracking well near Karnes City, Texas.

Aaron M. Sprecher/Associated Press

Just because something is better than something else doesn’t necessarily make it good.

This seems like an obvious enough point, yet it often manages to get lost in discussions about natural gas. Ever since certain advances in drilling and extraction technology—especially the technique of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—ushered in the domestic natural gas boom 15 years ago, much of the conversation regarding this hydrocarbon has been about how much better it is than other fossil fuels. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, when burned under optimal conditions, natural gas typically emits between 50 and 60 percent less CO2 than coal does, and as an automobile fuel, between 15 and 20 percent less of the greenhouse gases than gasoline. Natural gas also generates far less in the way of harmful pollutants like mercury and nitrogen oxide than do coal, gasoline, and diesel.

But the fact that natural gas burns cleaner than other combustible fuels doesn’t mean that it’s clean. The reason why can largely be summed up in one word: methane.

Ask people to name the pollutant most responsible for global warming and climate change, and most of them will correctly finger carbon dioxide as the primary culprit. But methane, the main ingredient found in natural gas, is far more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2. The lifetime of atmospheric methane is relatively short; most of it dissipates after about a decade. But while it sticks around, methane is more than 80 times as effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, which has a lower capacity for heat storage but can linger in earth’s atmosphere for hundreds of years.

Methane leaks go hand in hand with our processes for extracting, storing, and burning natural gas. They’re a big reason that methane accounts for nearly 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Last summer, a study published in the journal Science found that U.S. oil and gas operations are leaking 60 percent more methane than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had previously calculated: about 13 million tons more each year. And just last week, thanks to a journalistic collaboration between E&E News, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Houston Chronicle, we learned that Cheniere Energy’s 1,000-acre Sabine Pass terminal in Louisiana has been plagued by dangerous leaks for the past decade. A leak last year resulted from “gashes up to six feet long” in the steel tanks that store super-chilled liquid natural gas (LNG), the stuff that the Trump administration recently and ridiculously rechristened “freedom gas.” The released LNG “quickly vaporized into a cloud of flammable gas” with the potential to ignite and set off “an uncontrollable fire.” One LNG expert proffered a worst-case scenario: a series of “cascading explosions that could destroy a plant and possibly extend damages to the public beyond the facility boundary.”

Whether or not these leaks ever catch fire and explode, such methane emissions are still doing substantial harm in the atmosphere. Practically everyone recognizes this—including some of the country’s biggest oil and gas companies, which have called for a tightening of federal rules designed to plug methane leaks connected to fossil fuel production.

But when I say “practically” everyone . . . well, I’m sure you know where I’m going. Last September, as part of its ongoing attempt to completely nullify the previous president’s environmental legacy and cater to polluting industries, the Trump administration began rolling back Obama-era protections intended to curb methane emissions. One rollback effectively allows oil and gas companies to evade responsibility for updating their leak-detection equipment and for reducing the practice of flaring (the intentional burning of excess gas) in operations on federal and tribal lands. Another rollback would significantly lengthen the period between leak inspections and double the amount of time fossil fuel companies can wait before repairing a methane leak.

So the next time someone tells you that natural gas is a form of clean energy, point out that cleaner doesn’t mean clean, just as better doesn’t mean good. And then remind this person that as long as we have a president who’s as committed to gutting environmental laws as Trump is, the path from better to bad to worse is a short one.

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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