McKibben and EDF Agree: Plugging Methane Leaks "A Huge Priority"

Methane is flared from a natural gas well site.

Methane is flared from a natural gas well site.

Bill McKibben is at it again—using his formidable analytical and rhetorical skills to challenge comfortable climate assumptions. In this case, the author and activist puts the heat on politicians, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who argue that natural gas can be a “bridge fuel” to a low-carbon energy future.

Since natural gas emits half the carbon of coal when it’s burned, supporting it gives politicians a way to position themselves as both pro-energy and pro-climate. But writing in Mother Jones, Bill questions whether switching from coal- to natural gas-fired electric generation brings any climate benefit at all.

Because natural gas is mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas, he points out that if enough uncombusted methane is leaking from the natural gas supply chain, natural gas may be even worse for the climate than coal.

We couldn’t agree more.

Methane demands immediate action

As Bill points out, Environmental Defense Fund has been working on this issue for several years. We’re pleased to see him shine a light on it.

Estimates vary widely as to how much methane is being emitted from the natural gas system, so EDF is coordinating a series of scientific studies to deepen our understanding of the problem.

Already, results from our earliest studies, as well as others, confirm that methane leakage is an urgent issue that demands immediate action.

The good news is that we can cut 40 percent of the leaks over five years for nominal cost. More good news is that the Obama administration has been studying the issue as well and is formulating its response.

A growing consensus – and a moment of truth

This is a moment of truth for the president – the moment when he must turn his gas-is-cleaner rhetoric into reality by adopting regulations to control methane.

Hillary Clinton has also taken that position, telling an energy conference in Nevada last week, "Methane leaks in the production of natural gas are particularly troubling, so it's crucial we put in place smart regulations and enforce them.”

In Mother Jones, Bill agrees that “there should be a huge priority on plugging the leaks in the ancient pipes that deliver [natural gas] to our cities.”

But he goes much further than that, of course, restating his opposition to natural gas development and citing an estimate that global natural gas consumption must peak as early as 2020 in order to keep human-caused warming below 2 degrees Centigrade, a widely accepted goal.

And he asks why EDF has not come out in favor of bans and moratoria on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial extraction method that has greatly increased the supply of natural gas and helped shut down dirtier coal-fired power plants.

Let me answer that one directly.

As opposition to fracking has grown in recent years, EDF’s easiest course of action would have been to denounce fracking and oppose all production. It’s a simple, clear position, and one that has plenty of merit given the very real environmental and public health risks associated with unconventional oil and gas development.

Why we work on natural gas

We concluded, however, that doing so would not be our most effective course of action. With many groups already taking the just-say-no position, adding our voice to that strong and principled chorus would be less effective than engaging directly and fighting to get strong regulations in place.

There are things the oil and gas industry can do right now to significantly reduce the impact development is having on our communities and our climate. Few, if any, of the thousands of oil and gas companies operating in the United States today will voluntarily incur the time and expense needed to do things right unless there’s strong oversight and enforcement.

Someone has to fight for those rules—and that’s what EDF is doing aggressively, every day. Sometimes that means sitting across the table from energy companies. And that kind of engagement wouldn’t be possible if we were simultaneously calling for bans and moratoria.

Colorado slashes methane emissions by 30%

Our approach is working. Here’s just one example: Early this year in Colorado, at the request of Governor John Hickenlooper, we were able to craft tough air pollution rules with the state’s three largest producers, Anadarko, Encana, and Noble; including the first-ever rules to control methane emissions.

We were instrumental in the adoption of state rules that slash methane emissions by more than 30 percent, and cut conventional pollutants equivalent to getting all the cars and trucks in Colorado off the road each year.

The brown cloud above the Front Range will get smaller. Lives will be saved.

Solutions that will transform our energy economy

We agree with Bill that no matter how effective we are at reducing methane leakage, natural gas is not a solution to global climate change. Energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy are what we need—massively and quickly.

While efficiency has always been the cheapest option, it’s amazing to see the cost of wind and solar dropping so far and fast they can often compete with or even beat new natural gas on price alone.

And it’s frustrating when anti-competitive utility regulations and antiquated grid infrastructure slow renewable energy deployment and stymie the consumer revolution in innovative energy technologies.

That’s why our fastest-growing program at EDF is devoted to clearing away those obstacles and speeding the transition to clean energy.

We agree: Natural gas is not a “bridge”

Natural gas is not a bridge to the clean energy future. But with the right policies, it could give us an exit ramp off the carbon highway, doing things like providing back-up power when needed for intermittent renewables in the years before large-scale energy storage systems are in place.

It can also enable highly efficient distributed combined heat and power systems in urban areas where traditional renewable solutions may be difficult to deploy at scale.

How much longer will we need to generate a portion of our electricity with natural gas? The truth is no one knows.

What we do know is that if the U.S. went to 100-percent renewable electricity tomorrow, everyone at EDF would celebrate — yet we would not be able to stop working on natural gas. Two-thirds of all natural gas produced in our nation is used not to generate electricity, but as a feedstock for fertilizers and chemicals, and for direct heating and cooling.

So even if every natural gas-fired power plant were shut down tomorrow, some 60 percent of total U.S. demand would not go away. Bill recognizes this as well, and it’s what leads him to support our efforts to reduce methane emissions from the supply chain.

We must do all we can to avoid lock-in of any natural gas-related infrastructure not directly tied to moving our nation to a cleaner, more efficient, renewable energy future.

We need to be smart about how we use our energy resources today even as we accelerate on the road to a clean energy future. And as we advocate for that future, we need to understand that a diversity of approaches makes the environmental community stronger.

On a winning team, everyone doesn’t play the same position. But if we work together, I believe we will reach the environmental goals we all share.

This post originally appeared on our EDF Voices blog.

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  • Vice President, Climate and Energy Program
    Mark Brownstein is a Vice President in the Climate and Energy Program at Environmental Defense Fund.

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