Natural Gas vs. Coal: New Insight

Underground Natural Gas Storage
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A study published in the journal Nature in 2013 cast doubt over the assertion that natural gas is cleaner than coal in the context of electricity generation. Nobody disputes the fact that burning natural gas produces only about half the greenhouse gases than coal does. However, to truly evaluate the performance of natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal, one has to consider the methane leaks associated with natural gas exploitation.

Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, about 30 times more effective than carbon dioxide. Fortunately, the amount of methane emitted is a fraction of carbon dioxide emissions, and methane has a tendency to break apart over time, residing in our atmosphere for a much shorter period.

Forward to February 2014, when a new study on the emissions from natural gas was published in the journal Science. The authors re-evaluated the importance of methane leaks during the production and processing of natural gas, including by high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. They found that the amounts leaked currently are less than the estimates put forth in the 2013 Nature paper. This keeps natural gas at an advantage compared to coal’s greenhouse gas emissions tally.

Two additional points were of interest:

  • Gas leaks can be from a variety of sources, including cracked well casings, deliberate venting during normal operations, or malfunctioning valves. The authors of the study found that most leaks are due to a few particularly leaky pieces of equipment, referred to as “super-emitters”. This is encouraging; it means we could significantly reduce methane emissions with a few strategically applied technological fixes.
  • Despite the favorable reputation natural gas gets in comparison to coal when it comes to power generation, it suffers in some other match ups. Any greenhouse gas emissions advantage natural gas might have over diesel as a fuel for buses might be canceled by methane leaks occurring during production and processing.

    Sources

    Nature. Accessed 15 February 2014. Methane Leaks Erode Green Credentials of Natural Gas.

    Smithsonian. Accessed 15 February 2014. Natural Gas Really is Better Than Coal.

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    Beaudry, Frederic. "Natural Gas vs. Coal: New Insight." ThoughtCo, Dec. 14, 2016, thoughtco.com/natural-gas-vs-coal-new-insight-1203823. Beaudry, Frederic. (2016, December 14). Natural Gas vs. Coal: New Insight. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/natural-gas-vs-coal-new-insight-1203823 Beaudry, Frederic. "Natural Gas vs. Coal: New Insight." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/natural-gas-vs-coal-new-insight-1203823 (accessed November 19, 2017).