Since I started giving talks, the subject of natural gas has come up a lot (see Greg and Jasmine, Kristen, Jeff and Toni, or Jon and Jenni). When it does, I often refer to it as a “bridge fuel” – a step halfway between our dirty energy present and our emissions-free future. Like methadone or one of those light-up electronic cigarettes (which are cool enough to make me want to start smoking), natural gas has been pitched as a way to wean us off the hard stuff until we learn to live without. It made sense. After all, natural gas is abundant, cheap, and clean, isn’t it?
Abundant, yes. Cheap, yes. Clean? Not even close.
Natural gas has been riding high on the appearance that it was much cleaner than oil or coal and in some ways it is. When burned, natural gas releases 30% less carbon dioxide than oil and 43% less than coal. However, burning gas isn’t the whole story on emissions, proved by a new study showing that natural gas wells leak nearly 9% of their product in to the atmosphere. This leakage is comprised primarily of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 21 times as powerful as carbon dioxide! Do some quick calculation on the back of a napkin and you’ll see that these leaks completely negate any emissions benefit natural gas has over oil and coal, and, in fact, make it dirtiest of all options.
Needless to say, I won’t be extolling the virtues of natural gas any longer. I apologize for my mistake…all we can do as new information becomes available is incorporate it and move on. Like many, I found the concept of a bridge fuel seductive. Having a modest and eminently attainable transition point between present and future energy systems made the journey ahead seem less daunting. Of course I knew about the dangers of fracking (which include groundwater contamination, air pollution, minor earthquakes), but I believed these effects to be manageable, relatively minor, and a fair trade off in pursuit of the bigger picture. Forest for the trees, and all that.
Now that’s over and done with. What’s clear from this report is that we need to stop thinking of natural gas as a “bridge fuel”, and instead lump it in with other dirty fuels to be phased out as soon as possible. In a way this is good, as it simplifies the argument for environmentalists. We no longer need nuance in our approach to the different fossil fuels. Now, they’re all bad. In another way, this is terrifying because the comforting “bridge” has been yanked out from under us. There will be no slow weaning off from fossil fuels. Instead, we must embrace a rapid and urgent transition to renewable energy. We now venture forth into uncharted territory, not because it’s easy, but because we know it’s right.