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Emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane during natural gas drilling and distribution might make natural gas more harmful to the environment than other fuels, according to an article in the Christian Science Monitor.
The article notes that natural gas has lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal, but adds, “Critics counter that the climate advantage of less CO2 may be canceled out by higher emissions of methane. Natural gas is primarily methane, the most powerful of the greenhouse gases, and the next most abundant in the atmosphere after CO2.”
The article says the methane problem is hard to quantify due to the lack of precise information. “The critical question is how much methane leaks during the drilling process, and also subsequently during processing and transport of the gas,” the article states. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) says that if leak rates are greater than 3 percent of the total output, then gas drilling may actually be increasing America’s greenhouse gas load rather than diminishing it, as the industry claims.
“That’s because methane has anywhere from 20 to 70 times more warming potential than CO2, depending on the time frame that one considers. It is especially damaging in the short term,” the article states. “If we don’t put a brake on the rate of increase in greenhouse gases quickly, scientists warn, the momentum of climate change might become all but impossible to slow down,” the article states. “Methane may well tip the balance.”
The article goes on to state that methane leakage data is unknown because it is not being collected. “We can’t say for sure, for the simple reason that nobody is monitoring methane leak rates from gas and oil wells,” the Monitor writes. “The industry is not required to do this, and neither are government agencies.”
The Environmental Protection Agency recently released a report that estimated that methane leaks from gas drilling amount to 1.5 percent, the article notes. “However, this low figure is disputed by some scientists, like Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University. They wrote a study in 2011 showing that methane leaks from gas drilling are far higher than the gas industry has claimed." Small-scale studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate that 4 percent to 9 percent of natural gas extracted during drilling leaks into the atmosphere.