Herald-Leader Editorial

Natural gas no panacea for climate

August 25, 2013 

If President Barack Obama is serious about his plan to curb climate change, he must insist that the oil and gas industry get better control of heat-trapping methane that it releases into the atmosphere.

A United Nations study due out next month will report an increase in certainty among scientists that rising temperatures are the result of human activity, not natural climatic variations.

Both Obama, who unveiled his plan in June, and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz tout the shale-gas boom as part of the solution. Obama has called natural gas "the transition fuel that can power our economy" to a low-carbon future.

Obama and Moniz acknowledge the need for better methane control. But the administration's actions in this regard have been half-hearted and disappointing.

Natural gas has obvious advantages over coal, especially in reducing traditional power plant pollution, the kind that harms human lungs, hearts, developing brains and life spans.

Natural gas from shale, which is cheap and abundant thanks to a controversial extraction technique known as fracking, also puts less heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the air. CO2 from burning coal is the biggest contributor to climate change.

But methane, the main component of natural gas, is also a major culprit in climate change.

In fact, methane traps far more heat than CO2 in the short term. And short-term reductions in heat-trapping gases are a necessity to avoid exceeding the 2 degree Celsius increase that scientists warn against going beyond.

Methane is emitted, both intentionally and through leaks, at every step of natural gas production and transport; it has also flared off oil wells.

In 2010, the Government Accountability Office reported that currently available technology could economically capture around 40 percent of the methane that drilling operations on federal lands now release into the atmosphere.

The GAO said this would reduce heat-trapping emissions as much as taking 3.1 million cars off the road, while royalty payments to the government would increase by $23 million.

The methane that goes into the air is energy wasted. But with prices so low, producers have little incentive to capture and sell it.

In response to the GAO report, the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees drilling on federal lands, began updating its methane rules for the first time in more than 30 years, a process that now seems stalled.

Possible harm to water from fracking, the practice of injecting water and chemicals under high pressure to free gas in underground shale, is another subject that seems to hold little interest for the Obama administration.

The Los Angeles Times reported recently that the Environmental Protection Agency had prematurely closed or dropped three investigations into possible contamination of drinking water by fracking.

As politically inconvenient as it may be, we can't just switch from one fossil fuel to another if we're serious about protecting the planet.

The U.S. must move faster on energy efficiency, wind, solar, geothermal and better control of CO2 and methane unless we want future generations to look back and wonder how we could have been so short-sighted and selfish.

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