Gas can’t afford to lose green trump card
The attack on gas is growing. A new report alleges the fuel source is worse for global warming than coal. It’s the latest strike against its green credentials. But unlike coal, gas producers have the technology to capture the emissions. The industry should strike back by embracing tougher standards if it wants to win the fight for market share.
The notion that gas is the cleanest fossil fuel has been losing steam. A series of recent studies suggest the industry may be spoiling ground water and dredging up radioactive materials. But its proudest claim — of emitting about half as much greenhouse gas as coal — has held firm. Now even this boast has been called into question by Cornell academics.
The professors highlight a real worry. Gas extraction can lead to leaks of methane, which is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat. So at their most careless, gas firms may indeed be a fifth worse for global warming than coal.
But this tells only half the story. Gas producers already have the means to eliminate the bulk of these emissions. Voluntary standards from the Environmental Protection Agency helped the industry capture the equivalent of 35 million tonnes of CO2, the same as planting 7 million acres of forest.
Better still, sales of trapped methane were worth $344 million in 2009. Just over half of U.S. gas firms have signed up to this program. It would help if they set aside their natural distaste for regulation and accept the rules as mandatory for all.
It’s an advantage worth exploiting. Coal has fewer immediate options for self-improvement. Despite generous government help, carbon capture for coal has yet to be tested on a large scale and could raise the cost of electricity by up to about 80 percent, according to the Department of Energy. Without a price on carbon, such technology would not be widely adopted.
Environmental awareness helps explain why gas has boosted its share of electricity generation from 17 percent to 24 percent over the past decade. To keep it up, the gas lobby can’t afford to lose its greenhouse gas trump card.