The Global View

Natural gas boom: A deal ‘getting worse all the time’?

Could the natural gas “boom” end up being the Darth Vader to Lando Calrissian … as in, “This deal is getting worse all the time”?

It seems as though the uncertainties surrounding the safety, sustainability and wisdom of extracting as much natural gas as we can from every imaginable formation keep on growing. Besides the already-familiar concerns about hydrofracturing — including the risk of earthquakes —  questions remain about whether natural gas really qualifies as a “clean” energy source.

(Given current low gas prices and rising annual decline rates from shale sources, it’s also questionable how financially sustainable it is.)

One thing to remember is that, when we talk about natural gas, what we’re really talking about is methane. According to the industry site NaturalGas.org, natural gas is typically 70 to 90 percent methane … which, while it doesn’t linger in the atmosphere nearly as long as carbon dioxide, is a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times as powerful as CO2.

Gases are also harder to contain than liquids or solids, and that raises the problem of potential methane leaks during drilling and hydrofracturing. Research published last year found that anywhere from 3.6 to 7.9 percent of the methane produced during shale-gas extraction leaks into the atmosphere. And, while they’ve been challenged by the natural gas industry, those figures now appear to have additional backing from a new study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

That new research, which looked at a natural-gas production region near Denver, concludes that about 4 percent of the methane from operations there is leaking into the air.

An article about the study published in Nature notes that natural gas might still prove cleaner than coal for electricity generation, if for no other reason that gas-fired power plants are newer and more efficient than coal plants. However, the article adds, that doesn’t apply to the bulk of US natural gas consumption, 70 percent of which goes toward heating.

So how “clean” an energy source is natural gas? In one of the few areas where science and the gas industry agree, both acknowledge more research is needed.