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Alexis Arthur

Alexis Arthur

Alexis Arthur is energy policy associate at the Institute of the Americas, a think tank on Western Hemisphere Affairs based in La Jolla, Calif. She…

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Natural Gas Needs To Clean Up Its Act

Natural Gas Needs To Clean Up Its Act

To call natural gas ‘clean’ would be a misnomer. Natural gas is a fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide when burned and is an important contributor to climate change. The general consensus, however, is that when compared to oil (and petroleum products) or coal, natural gas it is by far the ‘cleaner’ choice for providing base-load power generation, heating homes, and for a series of other industrial and transport applications.

Still, the debate over methane emissions from natural gas production, transport, and distribution calls into question this assumption.

A new study by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) examined the methane emissions from natural gas production on federal and tribal lands. The study found that total natural gas loss, including flaring, amounted to 65 billion cubic feet (bcf) in 2013, or enough to meet the heating and cooking needs of around 1.6 million homes.

The implications of the study are serious. Not only does natural gas loss represent a waste of finite natural resources but it makes a significant and unnecessary contribution to the already seemingly impossible task of combating climate change. Related: Can This Next Shale Hotspot Live Up To The Hype?

While methane (the major component of natural gas) has a far shorter lifespan than carbon dioxide, it is more efficient at trapping radiation, making the impact on climate change 25 times greater over a 100 year period. Over 20 years, methane’s warming potential is 84 times greater than CO2.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane accounts for around 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, almost 30 percent of which came from the production, transport, and distribution of oil and natural gas.

The latest study is part of a much broader effort by the Environmental Defense Fund to measure methane emissions across the United States, not just on federal and tribal lands. In an earlier study released last year, the EDF argued that adoption of existing technologies and operating practices, as simple as more frequent inspections, could help the U.S. reduce methane emissions by 40 percent by 2018. Related: A New Oil Spill Disaster Waiting To Happen In The Gulf

The Bureau of Land Management is expected to take the latest findings into account when it releases new regulations on venting and flaring in the coming weeks.

Oil and gas companies and industry bodies such as the American Petroleum Institute argue that the Bureau has no business interfering. They posit that excess regulation will only burden companies economically and that this role should be left to the EPA. As for their responsibility for methane emissions, many place the blame on a lack of adequate infrastructure that necessitates flaring excess natural gas, particularly in states such as North Dakota where natural gas production has outpaced pipeline construction.

This view is out of line with national and global trends.

In January this year, the Obama Administration announced a target to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 – 45 percent by 2025. Many of the methods proposed – including reviewing standards, enhancing leak detection, improving pipeline safety, and modernizing infrastructure – are fairly straightforward. And over time they will save the industry and consumers money. Related: Big News For Uranium Miners Could See A Price Rebound Soon

Natural gas, meanwhile, will continue to play an important role in the U.S. and global energy matrix in decades to come. In countries across the developing world, replacing coal and petroleum products with a combination of natural gas and renewables would go a long way to reducing emissions and clearing the air. But its production, transport, and distribution must be cleaner.

Increased efficiency in energy production is not an issue unique to natural gas. But in the case of natural gas – which has often been described as a ‘bridge’ between fossil fuel dependence and a cleaner energy matrix – reducing the emissions of the most harmful greenhouse gases must be at the top of any energy agenda. The latest guidelines from the EDF along with the Obama Administration’s targets and better federal regulations must seize this opportunity.

By Alexis Arthur of Oilprice.com

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