Natural gas is better for the climate than coal — except when it’s much, much worse.
When burned for electricity, gas yields roughly half as much carbon dioxide as coal. For this reason, as the fracking industry has eaten into Big Coal’s market share over the past decade, C02 emissions at U.S. power plants have fallen by more than 25 percent.
But natural gas’s main component, methane, is actually more destructive for the climate than CO2 is — if it leaks into the atmosphere before being burned. In fact, methane is so effective at trapping heat that, once in the atmosphere, the chemical can produce about 80 times more warming than an equal amount of carbon dioxide.
Fortunately, such methane leaks are easily preventable. Advances in drilling technology offer gas companies a means of extracting fuel without putting a uniquely powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere in the process. And investing in state-of-the-art drilling wells and storage tanks would ultimately pay dividends for drillers — after all, the less gas they leak into the heavens, the more they can sell on commodity markets.
With these facts in mind, the Obama administration decided to nudge the fracking industry into pursuing its own enlightened interest. In Barack Obama’s final year in office, the EPA issued new rules requiring all natural gas companies to update their equipment (so as to minimize the risk of methane leaks), and collect more data on how much gas that they leak into the air. Meanwhile, the Interior Department enacted similar regulations that applied specifically to firms extracting natural gas and oil from federal and tribal lands.
“In order to achieve energy dominance through responsible energy production, we need smart regulations, not punitive regulations,” said assistant secretary for land and minerals management Joe Balash in a statement explaining the decision Monday.
Earlier this year, a study published in Science revealed that the rate of methane emissions in the U.S. is actually much higher than the Obama administration had estimated. When the Interior Department decided that imposing more stringent anti-leakage standards on natural-gas extractors was a pressing public concern, it believed that the rate of methane emissions from domestic oil and gas operations was equal to around 1.4 percent of total annual production — the new study puts that figure at 2.3 percent. That might seem like a tiny fraction, but, as the New York Times noted, “it represents an estimated 13 million metric tons lost each year, or enough natural gas to fuel 10 million homes.”
But the Trump administration wants to go on wasting that energy, anyway, so that its friends in the fossil-fuel industry can keep putting short-term profits above the long-term survival of human civilization.