Study Confirms Natural Gas Economy Has Lower Methane, Global Warming Emissions

Published October 20, 2016

The prospects for significant reductions in greenhouse gases has received a major boost, as scientists report methane emissions from fossil fuels have not increased, even with a substantial increase in natural gas production. As compared to coal, natural gas cuts in half the carbon dioxide emissions that are the main focus of global warming advocates. Some advocates, however, have expressed fears that methane emissions from increasing natural gas production are negating the benefits of carbon dioxide reductions.

Discoveries of large natural gas resources trapped in shale rock formations, together with advances in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and directional drilling technologies, have revolutionized global energy prospects. During the past decade, U.S. natural gas production has increased by more than 50 percent, and there is enough natural gas in the ground to power our economy for many decades or even centuries to come. More natural gas supplies have translated into lower prices, which has been a significant factor in power companies switching from coal to natural gas generation. In 2008, coal powered approximately half of American electricity while natural gas powered just 21 percent. In 2016, by contrast, natural gas is America’s leading source of electricity production, and coal power has dropped to 29 percent. Even while natural gas has displaced coal atop America’s electricity pyramid, inflation-adjusted electricity prices have fallen since 2008.

Global warming advocates have pointed out that natural gas production and transportation results in methane emissions. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. Although methane molecules get cycled out of the Earth’s atmosphere faster than carbon dioxide molecules, substantial increases in methane emissions could negate reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

Reporting in the peer-reviewed science journal Nature, a team of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado report methane leakage rates during natural gas production have declined substantially in recent decades, resulting in lower overall methane emissions even as natural gas production increases. The results show the transformation of America’s primary electricity source from coal to natural gas has reduced carbon dioxide emissions without increasing methane emissions.

Looking forward, natural gas will almost certainly displace even more coal power from America’s electricity mix. This not only bodes well for American electricity prices, it also bodes well for America’s greenhouse gas footprint.

[Originally Published at Forbes]