Natural gas is hailed by proponents as the crucial link between dirty fossil fuels and renewable power. But two new studies, to be published this week, suggest that natural gas development may be doing more to warm the planet than burning coal.
The research reports, discussed in an NYT article by Tom Zeller Jr., say that newly developed techniques for tapping natural gas reserves — such as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" — are resulting in much higher methane losses into the atmosphere than previously expected. While methane dissipates in the atmosphere more quickly than carbon dioxide, it is far more efficient at trapping heat.
The author of one of the studies, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, admits that the data obtained is "woefully thin." What is needed are detailed measurements of the amount of fugitive methane being released into the atmosphere.
In an email to Zeller excerpted in a follow up NYT Green post, Ramon Alvarez, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, concurred.
“Though we have questions about the study’s emissions estimates, it nevertheless highlights the critical importance of getting better data so that we can accurately characterize air pollution from natural gas development,” wrote Alvarez. “If the industry wants people to trust that natural gas is a clean alternative, it should spend less time fighting pollution disclosure requirements and more time addressing environmental and public health concerns.”
Photo: A natural gas pipeline in Colorado. (Kevin Moloney/NYT)