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Gas and Nukes Offer No Solution

Paul Kando

New satellite data and surface observations analyzed by Harvard researchers confirm previous observations that U.S. methane emissions are considerably higher than the official numbers from the EPA, which are mostly based on industry-provided estimates, not actual measurements. While this new study doesn’t offer a specific explanation for the 30% increase in U.S. methane emissions from 2002 to 2014, many other studies have identified the source as leakage of methane from the natural gas production and delivery system. Natural gas is mostly methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas that traps 86 times as much heat as CO2 over a 20-year period. Even a small leakage rate can thus have a large climate impact.

Gas flare off in North Dakota.
photo credit: NY times

Even with zero methane leakage increased natural gas use for electricity will not substantially reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. And by delaying the deployment of renewable energy technologies, gas use may actually exacerbate climate change problems. In fact, a study published just last month found that natural gas and renewable energy are in direct competition to replace domestic coal fired generating plants.

Many still tout the climate benefits of fracked natural gas — despite a dearth of supporting evidence and plenty of data against. To wit: the IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas Scenario” leads to over 6°F warming and out of control climate change. The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) concludes that switching from coal to gas increases warming for decades with only a minimal benefit even in 2100. Air sampling by NOAA confirms a methane leakage rate of up to 9% from gas fields, which “offsets the climate benefits of natural gas”. According to climatologist Ken Caldeira et al., the world’s only hope to avert catastrophic temperature rise this century lies in zero-carbon technologies and conservation. Based on the work of 14 different modeling teams, the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum projects zero long-term climate benefit from shale gas. A 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reports up to 1,000 times more methane released at gas wells than EPA estimates. Expanded natural gas use actually worsens climate change according to a 2014 Environmental Research Letters study. And, according to NASA’s recent satellite observations, the “U.S. methane ‘hot spot’ is [over 3 times] bigger than expected” and methane leaks wipe out any climate benefit of fracking.

Even with deep CO2 cuts, we’re headed toward dangerous 2°C warming by mid-century. Since the planet responds much more rapidly to methane, a reduction in these emissions now would slow the rate of global warming immediately.

Before we bet on nuclear reactors, similar concerns apply to them as well. Uranium enrichment is the source of over 95% of ozone-depleting CFC emissions. Domestic use of CFC's was banned in the 1987 Montreal Protocol. However enrichment was exempted. (Radioactive wastes are still another concern.)

The good news is that solar and other renewables are ready to power a modern economy. We don’t need new nukes, or natural gas as a “bridge” to a carbon-free future. All we need do is act.