The question whether natural gas as a climate solution may finally be laid to rest.
A brand new, comprehensive study of methane leaks published in the journal Science, has concluded that “natural gas could warm the planet as much as coal in the short term.”
Findings of the 24-author study found that if a coal-fired plant is replaced with a gas-fire plant there is no net climate benefit for at least two decades.
The study also shows that methane emissions from U.S. oil and gas operations are actually 60 percent higher than previous estimates from the federal government.
Leader researcher Anthony Marchese, a professor of mechanical engineering at Coloroa State University, lead a team that spent months on the road for the study, visiting over 100 oil and gas sites in 13 states. During their travels Marchese and his team observed an “abnormal operating state”, such as a natural gas spewing from one of the condensate tanks, at 20 percent of the facilities they visited.
Natural gas, which has been considered to be “cleaner” than coal, is mostly methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas, and traps 86 times as much heat as CO2 over a 20-year period. Recent studies have shown that even a very small leakage rate of methane from the natural gas supply chain can have a very large climate impact.
The Environmental Defense Fund took Marchese’s data and, combined with data from more than 100 other independent researchers, found that the methane leak rate is around 2.3 percent of total yearly U.S. gas production – enough to power 10 million homes for an entire year.
As ThinkProgress pointed out, many studies have found that leakage rates are not small at all, especially as fracking becomes more popular. A study released in November found that methane emissions escaping just from the state of New Mexico are “equivalent to the climate impact of approximately 12 coal-fired power plants.”
Another study on methane emissions found that “produce radiative forcing over a 20-year time horizon comparable to the CO2 from natural gas combustion,” meaning that natural gas plants and coal plants produce relatively the same impact on total warming over a 20 year period.