The application of fracking and horizontal drilling technologies to natural gas production revolutionized the U.S. energy industry over the past decade. Once a major importer of natural gas, the country is ramping up exports and burning more and more in its power plants. A steadily low price of natural gas has kept energy prices in check and helped American manufacturing. This revolution has the potential to be good for both the economy and the environment, because burning natural gas produces none of the toxic ambient air pollution that burning coal does, and only about half the greenhouse emissions. The Obama administration made switching from coal to gas a cornerstone of its plans to slash emissions from the power sector.
But that only makes sense if enough gas makes it to power plants to be burned. In its pre-combusted state, natural gas is mostly methane, which is itself an extremely potent greenhouse gas. If a molecule of natural gas leaks into the air before combustion, it traps 84 times as much heat as a molecule of carbon dioxide does over 20 years. During production and transportation, some leakage is inevitable. But if too much seeps into the atmosphere, it negates the climate benefits of switching from coal to gas.
The question of how much methane is leaking out of the country’s booming gas fields, compressors, storage tanks and pipelines has been controversial. The Environmental Protection Agency has relied on a relatively benign estimate of 1.4 percent. The Science study suggests that is far too low. Relying on extensive measurements on the ground and from the air, an army of researchers assembled direct observational data suggesting that the rate is more like 2.3 percent. The difference seems small, but if true it would cut drastically into natural gas’s climate advantage over coal. And there is some reason to believe their estimates might understate the problem, given that they did not closely examine leaky last-mile gas distribution networks.
The good news is that the problem would be easy to fix. The study suggests that the major problem may be with storage tanks, pipelines, seals and other infrastructure that is operating dramatically outside of normal conditions — in other words, obviously in need of repair. Even better, maintenance will often pay for itself or nearly so, as operators collect and sell more gas.
What is missing is the government pressing laggard natural gas operations to improve. Some states have sensible rules; others do not. The Obama administration developed a strong slate of regulations addressing methane leakage, but the Trump administration is pressing to roll it back. Not every regulation Obama officials favored made sense. But, once again, in its anti-regulatory fervor, the Trump administration is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.