The Natural Gas Boom Could Accelerate Climate Change

Read the full post at Five Thirty Eight Science.

Natural gas production in the United States is booming: Since 2005, it has increased by 35 percent,1 and with each passing year the country burns more gas, and less coal and oil. Natural gas emits far less carbon dioxide than coal or oil, and the gas boom has driven a decline in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions over the past decade. The boom stems largely from the shale gas revolution, in which hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling (“fracking”) allows recovery of natural gas and petroleum trapped in underground shale formations.

Policymakers have hailed this revolution as beneficial in the fight against climate change, but natural gas does have a dark side: It is composed primarily of methane, which has a much stronger climate-warming effect than carbon dioxide. Unburned methane that leaks into the air from anywhere in our natural gas infrastructure has a potent climate-warming effect, and global methane levels have been steadily increasing since 2007.

The only way to know whether switching to natural gas will worsen climate warming, rather than lessen it, is to accurately assess the scale of methane leakage. Since the issue first rose to prominence following a 2011 study, numerous research groups have sought to get a handle on methane leakage. In the past year alone, several high-profile studies have been published, each using a different methodology and some reaching widely differing conclusions. The scientific community is far from consensus on the topic, but a look at the available data is illuminating, and perhaps alarming.

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