Alan S. Miller
9 min readApr 19, 2024

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The Prince Has Lost His Crown

Concerns Grow About the Risks of Natural Gas

In a 1994 publication, Power Surge, the environmental think tank Worldwatch labeled natural gas the “Prince of the Hydrocarbons” because of its relatively clean and versatile qualities. The authors celebrated the environmental advantages of natural gas relative to other fossil fuels and especially coal: a dramatic reduction in sulfur and particulates and no ash or heavy metals. As they also noted, natural gas burns more thoroughly than solids or liquids and has lower carbon content, resulting in much lower CO2 emissions when used to generate electricity. And as the Worldwatch authors advocated, natural gas has largely replaced coal for electricity generation in the U.S.[1] (See the Figure below)

Source: U.S. EPA, “Power Sector Evolution”

U.S. production of natural gas has grown enormously since the Worldwatch report, with most of the increase since 2005 due to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques. Natural gas production in the U.S. doubled from 2005 to 2022. The U.S. is now the largest producer of natural gas in the world, responsible for about a quarter of global production. The increase in production is largely going into export in the form of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), a source of new concerns addressed below. Thanks to the increase in production, domestic gas prices have remained at their lowest level in decades.

Yet in parallel to these dramatic statistics, there have been increased environmental concerns. Environmentalists have long since stopped celebrating the growing use of natural gas.

· Hazardous air pollutants: A 2022 study found that natural gas used in homes throughout the Greater Boston area contains varying levels of volatile organic chemicals that when leaked are known to be toxic. These chemicals are linked to cancer and can form secondary health-damaging pollutants such as particulate matter and ozone. When gas leaks occur, even small amounts of hazardous air pollutants can impact indoor air quality because natural gas is used by appliances in close proximity to people. Emissions contain additional harmful pollution in the form of NO2, benzene, and fine particulates. Lower-income homes are at a higher risk of exposure to gas stove pollution because of smaller unit sizes, more people per home, old and unmaintained appliances, inadequate ventilation, use of the stove for heating, and lack of resources to upgrade to a new appliance.

· Contribution to climate change: The main constituent of natural gas, methane, is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a contribution to warming 84 times CO2 over a 20 year period. Oil and gas production are the second largest source of methane emissions globally as well as in the U.S. (agriculture is first and landfills are third). This is due to leakage throughout the production, distribution, storage, and use of natural gas. When considering the net emissions from all natural gas and coal greenhouse gases (including CO2, methane, and sulfur dioxide), the climate risk for natural gas and coal would be roughly equivalent at just 0.2 percent methane leakage. The climate implications of LNG are even worse, as discussed below.

Reducing methane emissions is increasingly viewed as the most promising or even only way to meet the Paris climate goals. In contrast, short-term reductions in CO2 will have little or no impact on warming for decades, in large part due to the unmasking of existing warming as co-emitted cooling sulfate aerosols fall out in a matter of days after fossil fuel facilities are shut down

· Fracking related earthquakes and tremors: After a dramatic spike in earthquakes in the early 2010s, state regulators in Oklahoma began taking steps to limit the injection of wastewater from oil and gas extraction deep into the ground. As a result, the number of earthquakes, particularly large ones, declined steadily over the years. But a couple larger recent quakes, including a 5.1-magnitude temblor in February 2024 that was one of the strongest in years, offers a reminder of the danger to areas dotted with such injection wells. The problem is not unique to the U.S.as indicated by experience in Argentina.

The New Source of Demand for Natural Gas: Export of LNG

Liquifying natural gas has also become a source of environmental concerns. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is natural gas that has been cooled to a liquid state (liquefied), to about -260° Fahrenheit, for shipping and storage. LNG is an especially problematic form of natural gas for the climate as chilling gas to incredibly cold temperatures uses a lot of energy. Maintaining gas at that temperature and transporting it by ship, rail, and truck adds considerably to energy used and GHG emissions. More energy is then required to warm the gas. The energy used for cooling is then simply wasted at the port of arrival, although proposals have been made for making use of it. When you add all of that up, LNG is responsible for about twice as much greenhouse gas per unit as ordinary natural gas.

The first wave of U.S. LNG exports began in 2016 but the country is now the world’s largest exporter. A massive capacity expansion is also underway. Three projects reached closure last year, attracting $40 billion in debt and equity financing. By 2028, the United States is slated to export more than double the current output of Qatar, the world’s second largest exporter. The initial push for LNG exports was based on the need to replace European imports of Russian gas following the Ukraine invasion, but this market now appears to be largely satisfied. Other regions, particularly Asia, are now expected to account for most of the post 2030 demand growth. Although solar and wind projects are now the cheapest source of energy in almost all parts of the world, many developing countries remain proponents of gas projects due to challenges related to financing, grid reliability, and industrial energy needs — as well as lobbying by gas producers.

The greatest objection to LNG exports centers on climate concerns. Expanded LNG exports will extend the pathway for fossil fuels, encourage more domestic exploration and production, and undermine U.S. climate commitments. New projects will require years to complete and compete with new and cheaper renewables. Building plants with a lifespan of 25 years or more will also lock in gas consumption for decades, conflicting with long-term climate goals.

Policy and Politics

The demand for electricity has been growing, ironically partly due to the increasing occurrence of extreme temperatures. Economics has increasingly led to shutting coal plants in favor of renewables and natural gas. Given the uncertainties associated with wind and solar power, this has made it more difficult to reduce reliance on natural gas power plants as sources of reliable backup. California had to delay planned closure of gas power plants after experiencing record demand for power during periods of heat extremes.

Some voluntary initiatives, as well as regulation and legislation, have begun to respond to the environmental concerns from increasing use of natural gas. One promising group of actions has been framed around the potential for identifying and reducing leakage, a strategy that makes economic as well as environmental sense. If the cost is modest, reducing leaks means increasing sales and profits. An environmental organization, the Environmental Defense Fund, launched a satellite on March 4, 2024, with the ability to identify and measure methane emissions and thereby facilitate control measures. California based Carbon Mapper will launch more satellites later this year promising even greater coverage of methane leaks.

Meanwhile EPA finalized regulations mandating methane emission reductions from the oil and gas sector in December 2023. Emissions that exceed statutorily defined levels are subject to a Waste Emissions Charge. EPA is also reportedly considering tougher limits on GHG emissions from new gas plants that operate more than 40 percent of the time, a policy that would apply to the majority of new gas plants built in the U.S. Together with the Department of Energy, EPA is also providing over $1 billion in financial and technical assistance included in the Inflation Reduction Act to help companies achieve emission reductions. Yet another agency, the Department of Transportation, has authority over many aspects of gas pipelines including requirements for minimization of methane emissions under legislation approved in 2020.

In contrast with the progress achieved at the federal level, the gas industry with the help of some restaurant interests has engaged in a fierce battle with state and local governments attempting to implement bans on new natural gas hookups. Such policies have been enacted by the State of New York and District of Columbia and several municipalities including San Francisco. Republican lawmakers in more than 20 states have passed laws prohibiting a gas ban, using the issue as the basis for colorful rants such as that from Congressman Jackson (R-Texas): “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands. COME AND TAKE IT!!”

The U.S. is the largest emitter of methane from oil and gas operations and the second largest emitter from all sources. At COP26 in Glasgow the U.S. and European Union initiated the Methane Pledge, a voluntary commitment to contribute to a reduce methane emissions at least 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030. The Pledge has since been endorsed by over 155 country participants, not including several of the largest emitters — China, Russia, India, and Iran — all with much larger methane emissions per unit of production. Progress toward the pledge is expected to be technically and economically feasible thanks to the increasing ability to identify and capture leakage from gas production and distribution. The gas industry was also encouraged by language in decisions taken at COP28 in Dubai; while endorsing a transition away from fossil fuels, the parties also recognized that “transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security,” language understood to be support for continued use of natural gas. The oil and gas industry is also betting heavily on carbon capture and storage technologies, still early stage and very expensive.

LNG exports are coming under greater scrutiny. In January 2024, the Biden Administration announced a pause on approval of new LNG projects pending a review of the environmental and economic implications. The delay prompted the expected industry opposition and criticism from pro-fossil fuel members of Congress as well as expressions of concern from Democratic senators from gas producing states. Aside from purely economic arguments, the delay has also been faulted for potential risks to national security. A leading academic energy program, the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines, argues in favor of lifting the pause based on the increasingly stringent domestic and international methane controls. Political considerations are likely to weigh heavily in the Administration’s decision and trade-offs for other policy goals are possible.

Conclusion

The time when environmentalists characterized natural gas as the “prince” of hydrocarbons ended some time ago. A more appropriate current characterization might be “the least bad” of fossil fuels. With improving detection of leakage and increasing commitments to methane capture, the climate damage from natural gas may even decline over time — if not offset by growing production and energy intensive LNG. While the controversy surrounding gas projects and regulation will no doubt continue, two key facts mitigate against increased use of natural gas: near term reductions in methane are the best, perhaps only chance to keep warming below the Paris goals, and there is no solution to climate change without the near total replacement of fossil fuels by solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy.

Postscript: after this blog was posted, the publication Inside Climate News ran a detailed story on the Pittsburgh company, EQT, aggressively promoting the gas it produces by fracking for export as LNG as a climate solution. The article, EQT Says Fracked Gas Is a Climate Solution, but Scientists Call That Deceptive Greenwashing, provides a good overview of the lack of scientific support for this claim.

In another recent analysis, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis concluded that lethargic gas demand growth combined with a huge wave of new export capacity will send global LNG markets into oversupply within two years, reducing any likely fiscal benefits to African nations currently pursuing LNG projects.

Yet another recent study by researchers at Stanford University found that people with gas and propane stoves breathe in unhealthy levels of nitrogen dioxide, which can trigger asthma and other respiratory conditions. The risk tends to be much greater for low-income households which experience the highest exposure, not only in the kitchen area but throughout the entire home.

[1] In 2005, coal made up 50% of U.S. electricity generation; that share declined to 23% in 2019. Conversely, natural gas increased from 19% of total generation in 2005 to 38% in 2019. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=48296

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Alan S. Miller

Alan S. Miller is co-author of “Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now!”. His full bio and links to writing are available at alansmiller.com