Is Natural Gas Really Cleaner than Coal?

Natural gas, long touted as a clean energy alternative, may not be as green as proponents would like us to believe. A study conducted by researchers at Cornell University has found that natural gas drilling may do even more damage to the environment than coal.

The supposed benefits of natural gas have helped create drilling booms in states like Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, where energy companies are using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to tap rich natural gas deposits in shale rock formations. Fracking involves injecting a cocktail of water and chemicals under high pressure into the earth in order to shake natural gas deposits loose from shale formations.

Critics of fracking have voiced concerns that the process could result in ground water contamination and other environmental problems. Arguments for the “green” benefits of natural gas have been used by the energy industry to counter those critics. Among other things, proponents of fracking brag that natural gas produces 40 percent less emissions than burning coal. But now, the Cornell study indicates the claims of a cleaner agency source may have been overstated.

The Cornell study looks at emissions, including greenhouse gas emission, from the processes used to extract both coal and natural gas. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, it seems that methane, the chief component of natural gas and a major greenhouse gas, is escaping from shale gas wells at quantities higher than previously thought – as much as up to 8 percent. When methane emissions are taken into account, natural gas from these shale formations produces more greenhouse gases than coal and coal-fired electricity generation over a 20-year time horizon, the study said.

The Cornell study, which is to be published this week in “Climactic Change,” is the first peer-reviewed study to look at the overall emissions from this type of gas

Robert Howarth, professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University and a lead author on the study, has admitted that the study’s numbers are not “terribly good”, according to a report from Mother Jones. But that is only because the industry isn’t currently required to report their emissions. The numbers in the Cornell study were drawn from a combination of industry reports, presentations, and dated EPA estimates, Howarth said.

The Cornell study “certainly suggests that, if you’re going to include natural gas in such a system, you have to get better data and account for these emissions,” Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate center, told The Wall Street Journal.

This isn’t the first time the fracking industry’s green claims have been called into question. Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an analysis that found the methane emissions from fracking were up to 9,000 times higher than previously reported. The greenhouse gases emitted each year from leaking loose pipe fittings and gas flaring at well sites was roughly equal to what is emitted by 35 million automobiles annually. According to a report from ProPublica, when taking the entire production cycle into account, the research indicated that natural gas production could be only 25 percent cleaner than coal, or even less, rather than twice as clean.

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