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Hazard/My Turn: Closer look at natural gas

Do we want and need the natural gas that is being extracted in the USA today?

From a business perspective, there is no question that there is money to be made and that the more we have, the cheaper it will be. But from a more global perspective, will natural gas take us to where we want to go? Is it cleaner? Will it reduce our climate change emissions? Is it a good “transition fuel” to what we really want? And do we need it today and in the future?

The following are some questions and some facts:

Is it cleaner? Yes, in many ways. When burned it is cleaner than coal and oil. Less particulates, mercury, and other air pollutants are emitted.

Does it reduce our greenhouse gas emissions? The answer is “maybe,” but not nearly as much as predicted or as needed. According to a report released last fall by Princeton University, “It will be decades before switching to natural gas from coal power brings a 50 percent reduction in emissions.”

To understand their conclusion, it is important to know that a) traditionally, when calculating the benefits of natural gas power plants, only the CO2 emissions from the power plant are measured, and b) that natural gas is methane, and methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. In fact, molecule for molecule, methane is 20 times worse than carbon dioxide (CO2).

This study looks at methane leakage while extracting, transporting, and storing natural gas, in addition to emissions at the power plant.

While there are debates on whether the leakage rate is 2 percent or 8 percent, the study concludes that “if the leak rate were 2 percent it would take 55 years to reach a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse impacts compared to continued coal use.” It goes on to say that if the rate is 8 percent, it actually contributes to global warming for the first 50 years, and after 100 years it will achieve a modest 12 to 17 percent reduction.

Counting all the emissions, from extraction to use, is called “life-cycle analysis.”

A few months ago, I was distressed to discover that Massachusetts is not using life-cycle analysis when measuring our progress toward our goal of reducing climate change emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

This oversight is delivering an incorrect analysis of the benefits of using natural gas. I am a mild-mannered person, but I would call this oversight criminal.

∎ Does it make sense for businesses to extract natural gas for U.S. or international use? Of course! There is much money to be made by big business!

∎ Will extracting natural gas meet President Obama’s commitment to reducing climate change emissions in a useful/meaningful way? No.

∎  Is it a useful “transitional fuel” to energy that does not produce climate change emissions? It could be, but only if the price of natural gas is set so that businesses have an economic incentive to invest in zero carbon options, and leakage rates of 1 percent or less are required, regulated, and enforced.

∎ Do we need natural gas in the Northeast? The answer is again “maybe.”

The region’s governors recently reported that there is a shortage of energy to generate electricity and heat our homes in the Northeast, and that they see natural gas as the best way to meet our needs and lower the cost of energy.

Other studies show that we don’t need more energy. We could reduce our need for energy by 50 percent or more, and sip energy like the Europeans.

The utility companies offer financial incentives and subsidies to help us do this … but to date only about 5 to 10 percent of the homes in Massachusetts have been upgraded. Utility incentives can help reduce home energy use by 10 to 30 percent. To get where we want to be, we will need to spend some of our savings, find loans or grants and/or convince our landlords to take action.

After reducing our energy by 50 to 80 percent, we could add some solar panels on our homes or at some remote sunny location, and meet all of our heating and electrical needs using energy that does not produce climate change emissions. This type of home is called a zero-net-energy home — and it is possible!

The path we choose is in our hands. When thinking about the natural gas pipeline, are short-term savings more important to you than the longer-term viability of the planet? Can you cut your electricity or heating needs if you heat with natural gas, and demonstrate that we don’t need more energy? Ask your politicians to ensure that we get accurate life-cycle analysis of our energy options and truly greener energy options. And don’t forget to vote.

Nancy Hazard is the former director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA). She can be reached at nhazard@WorldSustain.net.

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