By Nicholas Kusnetz
Methane leaks throughout the supply chain make the “cleaner” fuel more damaging to the climate than government data suggests
Can natural gas be part of a climate change solution?
That’s what the American Petroleum Institute argues in a new campaign it has launched ahead of this year’s elections, pushing back against some Democratic candidates who support bans on new development of oil and gas. The campaign echoes a refrain that supporters from both political parties have pushed for years: that gas is a cleaner fuel than coal and can serve as a bridge to a low-carbon future.
The industry points to data showing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions are at their lowest level in decades, as coal power generation has been replaced by gas, which produces about half the carbon dioxide emissions when burned, and by renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
But experts agree that those official figures understate emissions of methane, the primary component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas released in leaks throughout the oil and gas development supply chain. And while there’s uncertainty about how much methane is leaking, several studies show that the benefits of the switch from coal to gas over the last decade are smaller than government data suggests, perhaps substantially smaller.
Many oil and gas companies have pledged to reduce their methane emissions. But beyond the methane leaks, emissions from new petrochemical plants and liquid natural gas export facilities in coming years, spurred by the gas boom, are set to surge.
With costs of renewable energy sources like wind and solar now competitive with natural gas, many experts who have studied the industry’s emissions say that even though the switch from coal to gas has likely provided some climate benefits, marginal as they may be, it’s harder to argue that it can continue doing so in the future.
David Lyon, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, which has collaborated with the oil and gas industry in working on methane, said asking whether gas is better than coal may be the wrong question. “Compared to coal, I think there are a lot of advantages to natural gas,” he said. “But renewables have a lot more advantages.”
Jessika Trancik, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society, who recently co-authored a study about the coal-to-gas switch, said continuing to rely on natural gas will grow increasingly difficult.
“It has served as a bridge,” she said. “But we’re kind of nearing the end of the bridge.”