Switching from coal to natural gas will not save our planet

If as little as 3 percent of natural gas leaks in the course of fracking and delivering it to the power plant through a pipe, then it’s worse than coal.

MOST magic tricks and confidence games mostly work the same way — a little bit of misdirection to get the audience looking in the wrong direction. And some of the finest magicians at large in America today are its natural-gas salesmen, who have worked hard to reassure us that they’re part of the solution to the global warming crisis. To understand why that’s a ploy — to understand why they’re in fact helping drive the heating of the planet — you have to pay close attention.

The basic move is to insist that natural gas helps cut carbon emissions. Indeed, as Dan Kirschner, the head of the Northwest Gas Association, put it in his recent Op-Ed [“The power of natural gas in the war on carbon emissions,” Aug. 3, Opinion], “the U.S. leads the world in absolute reductions in carbon emissions, due in large part to the increased availability and affordability of natural gas.”

This is true on the surface. As America’s power plants have replaced coal with fracked gas, carbon emissions have fallen because natural gas produces half as much CO2 as coal when you burn it. The problem is, carbon emissions are not the only thing that drive global warming. There’s another gas that does the job even more powerfully: CH4, or methane, which is the scientific name for natural gas. If it leaks unburned into the atmosphere, then methane traps heat about 80 times more effectively, molecule for molecule, than CO2. The point of this chemistry lesson is: If as little as 3 percent of natural gas leaks in the course of fracking and delivering it to the power plant through a pipe, then it’s worse than coal.

And, sadly, it’s now clear that leakage rates are higher than that. In January 2013, aerial surveys of a Utah fracking basin, for instance, found leak rates as high as 9 percent. Data from a Harvard satellite survey showed that between 2002 and 2014, U.S. methane emissions increased more than 30 percent.

In fact, some experts who have reviewed the data say that because of the boom in fracking and the conversion to gas, America’s total greenhouse-gas emissions…

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