Natural gas. Abundant, relatively cheap, cleaner than coal and oil, a useful addition to the energy mix as we transfer towards renewable energy sources. These are some of the pervasive arguments in support of natural gas.
Natural gas may seem like the perfect clean alternative or partial replacement for coal and oil. It may appear that gas is an attractive bridge to follow as we move away from polluting energy sources into an economy and society powered by clean energy. Let’s change that assumption.
Natural gas is formed naturally underground over millions of years. It is a fossil fuel, emitting greenhouse gases upon combustion. Compared to coal and oil, natural gas emits 50% less carbon dioxide when combusted. However, there is a big catch: natural gas is composed of 70-90% methane, and methane is much more potent than carbon dioxide. 86 to 105 times more potent, to be precise. When natural gas is burnt and methane is released into the atmosphere, that methane traps heat far more efficiently than carbon dioxide can, according to research published in 2013 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In terms of ‘Global Warming Potential’, which compares the potency of other gases against that of carbon dioxide, methane has a GWP of 84 over 20 years (page 103 in the linked doc). In other words, in the first 20 years after methane is emitted, it is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Within a 100-year timescale methane is still 34 times more polluting than carbon dioxide. Methane’s potency reduces over time, but the impact that it can have in the first twenty years is not to be underestimated. If we pump more and more methane into the atmosphere, there will be no let up in the amount of highly potent methane present.
Many regulatory bodies and governments continue to use the 100-year model as a way of estimating the impact of methane upon the environment. However, this leads to distorted understandings of methane’s potential to dramatically contribute to global warming in the immediate and near future, as well as far into the future.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, ‘the expansion of natural gas leads to complex risks that should not be ignored’. UCS furthermore states that ‘a wholesale shift to natural gas makes less economic sense than would prioritizing investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency’.
Not only is natural gas polluting, but the methods by which it is extracted from the earth and transported are far from safe or clean. Fracking, shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, involves drilling down to access natural gas trapped in shale rock (this gas can be called shale gas). Water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the rock, causing fractures to form, and for the gas to flow into collection wells and pipes. Although many people welcome the expected economic benefits from fracking, the process is linked with a number of risks to public and environmental health. These include the chemical contamination of drinking water, busier and more polluted roads, air, noise and light pollution, and even earth tremors.
Furthermore, significant methane leaks can occur during fracking, as well as leaks from pipelines transporting gas. Numerous US communities such as Bradford County, Pennsylvania, have long been impacted by the busy roads, altered landscape and contaminated water caused by local fracking. The cities of Greenbrier and Guy, Arkansas, experienced over 1,000 earthquakes between 2010 and 2011, including a 4.7 magnitude quake which prompted the emergency shutdown of natural gas wells. In the UK, a number of communities have been protesting against fracking sites in Lancashire.
And what about renewable energy? How does gas fit in and aid the transition? Well, the short answer is that it doesn’t. The longer explanation is that as we’ve already seen, natural gas is highly polluting. On top of this, if the UK decides to keep investing in natural gas, this will only divert money and attention away from the renewable technologies which hold the key to a cleaner future. Improving our gas infrastructure and working out ways to extract more gas from the ground and beneath the ocean will do nothing to develop solar, wind and hydro power, all of which hold massive unrealised potential. Gas is not a ‘bridge’, it is a diversion.
Burning natural gas pollutes the environment, contributes to climate change, puts local communities at risk, and limits crucial investment in renewable energy. It is not a ‘natural’ solution. That’s why the UK Youth Climate Coalition have launched a new campaign calling on the UK government to think again when they claim that natural gas is the way forward. Our government has an environmental and social responsibility to say ‘no’ to highly polluting fossil fuels with a short-term economic benefit, and instead to invest in clean energy sources and the long-term benefits that they bring.