Jul 24 2016

Natural Gas: May Not Be the Bridge After All

Published by under Student blog entries

Flares burn off excess methane at an oil and gas field. Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Flares burn off excess methane at an oil and gas field. Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

A study recently done by researchers at Purdue and Cornell universities focused on gaining a better understanding of the levels of methane that are emitted during the removal process of natural gas from the earth. It was widely thought that natural gas would be the “bridge” fuel between coal based systems and renewable sources. It was marked as a cleaner fuel than carbon-rich coal, but not quite to the mark of the carbon-free renewable forms and thus would help in the transition process of shifting energy dependence from the former to the latter.

In a report from the IPCC, it was said that natural gas as a bridge fuel would only be effective if “few gases escape into the atmosphere during natural gas production and distribution” (Magill 2014). For a while, it was believed that this was the case that is until this recent study, and others like it, were published. They highlight an important flaw of the natural gas extraction process to be “fugitive” emissions that escape while a well is being drilled (Magill 2014). Methane emissions are the most common of the fugitive emissions which is alarming being that methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period (Magill 2014). The drilling process potentially emits up to 1,000 times the methane than previously supposed (Magill 2014). This number could be even higher considering other unknown factors of the quantification and distribution processes. Dana Caulton, a researcher from Purdue, said that emissions from drilling are completely left out of some of the EPA’s greenhouse gas inventories because it is “assumed to be negligible” (Magill 2014).

Interpolated methane concentration ∼1 km downwind of pad Delta, showing isolated methane plume near the center of the transect. Credit: Dana R. Caulton et al. PNAS 2014;111:6237-6242

Interpolated methane concentration ∼1 km downwind of pad Delta, showing isolated methane plume near the center of the transect. Credit: Dana R. Caulton et al. PNAS 2014;111:6237-6242

When the wells are being drilled, the natural gas that was contained in the shale layers is able to be released and then enters the atmosphere. Large amounts of natural gas are also able to leak out into the atmosphere via cracks and breaks in the distribution system. Fixing these leaks would not only be strenuous and costly, but also time consuming. This is definitely not ideal when considering that the IPCC also reported that we only have between 15 and 20 years for the natural gas “bridge” before our transition should be complete (Magill 2014).

It is not surprising that this method for providing energy has shown to be ineffective, given all of the already known controversies that come with natural gas extraction. With this new data, it is as important as ever for us to look towards renewable energy sources. Without this bridge, we no longer have as much time to carry out the lofty transition and must begin now if we hope make a positive difference in our efforts to combat global warming.

 

References

Magill, Bobby. 2014. “New Methane Leak Data Adds Doubt About Future Of Natural Gas As ‘Bridge’ Fuel.” The Huffington Post. April 16. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/16/methane-leak-natural_n_5161247.html?utm_hp_ref=energy.

 

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