Natural Gas and Climate Change

Natural gas is not part of a clean energy future.

The science shows that shifting from coal to natural gas wouldn’t have any significant impact on climate change. From the potent greenhouse gases leaked throughout its production, to its role in delaying the shift to affordable clean energy solutions, natural gas is simply not the answer.

As we retire the nation’s old coal-burning power plants, we should look at how to meet our power demands and stimulate our economy by rapidly scaling up our use of clean, renewable energy sources. The technology exists, and is improving and becoming more affordable every day.

Leaking Greenhouse Gases

For years, natural gas has been endorsed — misguidedly — as a clean alternative to coal. In fact, the total life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions for gas and coal are nearly equivalent.

This is because even though natural gas burns cleaner than coal, getting the gas to the power plant releases significant quantities of methane, an incredibly potent greenhouse gas.

Methane leaks from the drill pad during fracking operations. It leaks as gas leaves the fracking site through local transmission pipes. It leaks as the gas is transported long distances through massive, multi-state pipelines. It leaks at each compressor station along the route. It leaks at the end of the pipeline, as gas moves through local distribution systems to power plants or consumers. And methane is produced when gas is burned to generate power.

When all of this methane is released in the air, it absorbs the sun’s heat, warming the atmosphere for decades. Though it doesn’t remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, methane is more devastating because of how effectively it traps heat. In the first two decades after it is released, methane is 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at destabilizing the climate. And after 100 years, methane is still more than 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Delaying Renewables

Even if we dramatically improve the technology and shrink the methane leaks, a switch to natural gas is only a marginal improvement on coal. But natural gas poses a grave climate risk because investing in natural gas delays investments in affordable clean energy.

The massive, and expensive, slate of proposed new natural gas infrastructure would lock us into continued reliance on dirty, climate-altering fossil fuels for decades.

Several interstate pipeline projects have been proposed to carry natural gas from Pennsylvania and West Virginia. These projects would cost more than $16.4 billion, and result in more than 1,900 miles of 24- to 42-inch diameter pipeline cutting through parts of West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Utility companies also plan to invest billions of dollars in several new gas-burning power plants throughout our region.

Every dollar invested in this outdated and destructive infrastructure could be invested in clean, renewable energy instead.

And such investment may be financially unwise as well. Appalachian Mountain Advocates is working with expert economists to quantify the impacts of committing ratepayers to paying for the proposed natural gas infrastructure. We’re also working with experts to evaluate the economics of investing in solar and wind infrastructure instead, rather than continuing to pour money into fossil fuels.

A Critical Moment

We are at a crucial, critical moment in human history. A global climate disaster is imminent unless we take dramatic steps — right now — to drastically reduce the amount of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere. A swift transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy is the only way to avert climate catastrophe. This is the single most important issue facing humanity today.

Appalachian Mountain Advocates is working to block billions of dollars in counterproductive and unnecessary spending on fossil fuel infrastructure. The continued investment in fossil fuels is not just unwise, it presents a clear and present danger to humanity.