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Researchers, government reveal seamy side of natural gas boom

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According to a White House press call, President Obama will issue a block of executive actions on Tuesday to tackle the increasing problem of methane leaks ("fugitive emissions") from natural gas pipelines. These leaks have been found to be much larger than EPA or industry previously calculated and are significantly contributing to global warming,

Over the weekend, Scientific American had something to say on the issue. The magazine indirectly called into question the wisdom of the US decision to support increased use of natural gas for power compared to our use of coal. The petroleum industry and our federal government regulators have known for a long time that not all the natural gas we drill winds up at the stovetop or in industrial furnaces. There’s a great potential there for “fugitive emissions” (leaks at a drilling site and through connected pipelines and processing infrastructure).

It took until the natural gas boom for anyone to get serious about measuring these leaks. Budget cuts have complicated measurements: according to one report, the US needs three times as many towers and observations as we now possess. And the process isn’t easy, because natural gas, oil, and coal extraction all have similar byproducts. This makes the source of emissions hard to determine.

New investigations reported last week shed more light on fugitive emissions from recently accelerated drilling. They report higher potential leakage rates (2-4%) than those previously cited by industry and the Environmental Protection Agency. In some areas, like the Uinta basin of Utah, the levels are near 10%.

A 3% level is enough to negate the climate benefits of gas over coal during the next two decades. These 2-4% findings just published are enough to call into question the wisdom of using either natural gas for coal to meet our energy needs in the future. They also strengthen the case for proceeding full speed ahead with energy from renewables.

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