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The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced new steps in regulating greenhouse gas emissions specifically from the activities of the Oil and Gas Industry. The new regulations will address all emissions but focus heavily on methane, the major component of natural gas. As natural gas takes up a greater and a greater role in the energy landscape, regulating methane becomes crucial.

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As with any addiction, the first step is admitting the problem. Methane is currently in the spotlight because natural gas, a theoretically cleaner burning fuel, is increasingly seen as a partial solution to climate change. Methane only lasts in the atmosphere around 12 years, compared to a potentially much longer period for carbon dioxide, but during that time a molecule of methane can cause up to 37 times more warming than one carbon dioxide molecule. Natural gas does indeed produce fewer emissions per unit burned than oil or gasoline, and much less than coal, but that is only at the back end. The picture gets murkier when production is taken into account.

Methane leaks that occur during ordinary production need to be considered when weighing methane’s climate impact, not just those that occur during disasters. In fact, so much methane is released into the atmosphere through run-of the mill leaks from pipelines and other production/transport infrastructure that switching to natural gas cars without fixing these leaks would actually produce more greenhouse gas emissions than simply sticking with gasoline in the short term. Control the leaks by less than 50% and the same switch will have immediate, long-lasting climate benefits.

The problem is made worse by hydraulic fracturing (fracking). This new technology for gas extraction involves drilling horizontally to release gas deposits from shale beds, and the amount of greenhouse gas released directly into the atmosphere during this process is comparable to mountain-top removal coal mines. Some of it is even vented intentionally by pressure control valves.

Allowing so much methane to leak seems short-sighted, to say the least. Natural gas is not unlimited, so leaks literally send money into thin air. That gas will eventually run short, and producers will one day wish they hadn’t wasted it. The hope is that natural gas will lead a transition into a truly clean economy. Limiting pointless leaks will ensure that natural gas is truly a transition and not an obstacle.


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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 109, No. 17 (April 24, 2012), pp. 6435-6440
National Academy of Sciences
Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Vol. 8, No. 7 (September 2010), p. 342