By Allison Shafritz ’15
In high school, a group of green-minded students in the Environmental Club (myself included) sported pins on our backpacks that read “No LNG,” or liquefied natural gas. The campaign against an offshore natural gas drilling site was a popular issue at the time for the local environmental organization Clean Ocean Action. I was aware of the main arguments and supported Clean Ocean Action on this campaign, as did many other coastal residents. However, I had no idea just how important, complex, and widespread the issue of natural gas would later become. Recently, natural gas has been proposed as an energy bridge or “bridge fuel” in the transition from “dirty” fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, to renewable energy. Natural gas is considered a “cleaner” fuel because it produces less carbon dioxide than oil and coal. But more and more research is showing that natural gas is definitely not a clean source of energy. Because of this, it has acquired the nickname the energy “bridge to nowhere.”
The primary constituent of natural gas is methane, which releases about half as much carbon dioxide as coal when burned. However, this statistic alone does not tell us the whole story about the advantages and disadvantages of natural gas. The real danger of natural gas is methane leaks. NASA has reported that at hydraulic fracturing sites out west, about 17% of the methane leaks into the atmosphere. Methane is actually a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; according to Cornell scientists, over a twenty year period, one pound of methane traps as much heat as 72 pounds of carbon dioxide. In fact, natural gas only retains its advantage over coal if methane leaks can be kept below 2%.
NASA image: methane leaks seen from space
The opponents of natural gas as an energy bridge fear that increasing reliance on natural gas will end up being a long-term solution. Instead, they argue that we must do everything we can to limit our emissions of greenhouse gases. A switch to natural gas will do nothing to remediate projected climate warming; the only thing that will slow warming is a shift to renewable energy. In this sense, natural gas has been brushed off simply as a delaying tactic rather than an alternative solution.
There are also those on the other side of the argument, who claim that natural gas is a perfectly viable solution. They argue that relying more heavily on natural gas gives us more time to focus on research and development in renewable energy technologies. Steven Chu, the former U.S. Secretary of Energy, argues that natural gas is a good solution because there is technology available to deal with methane leaks. But if the technology is available, then why aren’t we using it?
I believe that this issue is largely dependent on the time scale and a few external factors. Natural gas may be a viable bridge fuel if (and only if) it is implemented as a short-term solution, we focus on research and development in renewable energy technologies, and methane leaks are kept below the prescribed 2%. This situation is entirely hypothetical, but I think that if these conditions are not met, natural gas will only lead us to a world with even higher levels of carbon dioxide, melting ice caps, and an increasingly acidified ocean.
Back in high school, all I knew about natural gas was that an offshore drilling site would have negative effects on the local ecosystem. Now, as natural gas comes to the forefront of the energy debate, it is becoming more apparent that this issue is complex and does not have a clear solution. I once again find myself contemplating the natural gas controversy, more knowledgeable but more uncertain than I was in high school.