Last spring the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) predicted that natural gas would generate more power in 2016 than coal, and now that natural gas has taken that lead, it is under close scrutiny as a “cleaner” alternative to coal. From the EIA’s latest Short-Term Energy Outlook, natural gas also beat out coal for carbon dioxide emissions from power generation.
“Energy-associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from natural gas are expected to surpass those from coal for the first time since 1972. Even though natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal, increases in natural gas consumption and decreases in coal consumption in the past decade have resulted in natural gas-related CO2 emissions surpassing those from coal.”
And the agency isn’t talking in fractions of a percentage point, either. EIA puts the emissions figure for natural gas at 10 percent greater than coal for 2016.
The methane emissions problem
The EIA report is focused narrowly on carbon emissions from power plants, and that is an area in which natural gas clearly does a better job than coal. (EIA puts the carbon intensity of coal at 82 percent higher than natural gas.)
However, throughout its life cycle natural gas also accounts for significant methane emissions, another greenhouse gas.
The lack of an effective regulatory mechanism for managing methane emissions at the wellhead is one key source of the problem, for both natural gas and oil drilling operations.
Last spring, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally took steps to address that issue. The agency issued a new regulatory framework, with this comment:
“Methane, the key constituent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) with a global warming potential more than 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. Methane is the second most prevalent GHG emitted in the United States from human activities, and nearly one-third of those emissions comes from oil production and the production, transmission and distribution of natural gas.”
The EPA also cited new evidence that methane emissions from both oil and gas operations are “substantially higher than was previously understood.”
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