When it comes to choosing the energy sources that power our lifefstyles, there is a wealth of technical and economic information available to us. Solar, oil, wind, nuclear, natural gas, geothermal, coal; the list goes on. Experts have published mountains of information on what it is made of, how it is obtained, and, perhaps most importantly, what ends up in the environment after the energy source is extracted, mined, captured, enriched, spent, burned, refined, etc.
But somehow with natural gas, a fuel some herald as environmentally friendly, the story has been twisted around, even in the midst of a mountain of objective scientific data. For those concerned about protecting our climate and preventing the contamination of our planet, natural gas could by some measures, seem attractive – or at least not as bad as super-toxic fossil fuels like oil and coal. The burning of natural gas itself results in the release of far safer amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, particulate matter, and mercury.
But that isn’t the end of the story. Natural gas contributes substantially to global warming, producing, ton-for-ton, about 70% the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that is released in the burning of oil. For every one billion BTUs (British thermal units) of natural gas burned, about 117,000 pounds of CO2 are released into the atmosphere, compared to about 164,000 pounds of CO2 for oil and 208,000 pounds for coal.
Furthermore, the main ingredient in natural gas is methane, an incredibly potent greenhouse gas that traps heat in our atmosphere at a rate of 20 times that of CO2 and constitutes nearly a third of human greenhouse gas emissions.
Furthermore, when natural gas is used on a large scale, as it is in the US, it inevitably leaks out of the nation’s extensive network of natural gas wells, pipelines, compressors, liquefiers, and tanks – directly into the atmosphere – worsening our planet’s ongoing climate crisis.
But if you thought that its climate change culpability was not enough to strip natural gas of its “green” designation, hold on – it gets even worse. Because natural gas, like all fossil fuels is deep underground, the natural gas industry has increasingly gone to great lengths to get at it. Techniques for extraction include hydraulic fracturing, or “hydrofracking”, in which chemicals are injected at high pressure deep underground, crushing the rock formations that harbor natural gas. The toxic substances used in hydrofracking can migrate underground, contaminating groundwater and air, and endangering the health and lives of people residing nearby. Congress – and many state legislatures – have yet to enact legislation that directly addresses these risks, and hydrofracking remains highly prevalent.
So, green or not green? It is up to each of us to learn about all of our energy options.