Every time the conversation about “green” energy comes up, the inevitable cohort of natural-gas enthusiasts shows up, ready to tout the benefits of this abundant (at least in the United States) source of energy.
Some of the arguments in favor include: it burns more cleanly than coal or oil; it is plentiful; it is easy to get out of the ground (unlike coal and shale oil, which scar acres of land and destroy natural habitat); it is cheap, making it good for “peaking” (meeting higher-than-average periods of consumer demand for electricity); and it is easy to transport or store.
Let’s take the claims in favor of natural gas in order, starting with the fact that it burns more cleanly. This is true; natural gas plants, theoretically, 50 percent cleaner than coal.
However, as Scientific American points out, this is at optimum performance levels. More than half the gas-fired plants in the U.S. operate at less than maximum efficiency, or only 25 percent to 32 percent cleaner than coal. And the amount of natural gas lost during production is even more dismal.
For example, the primary greenhouse gas (GHG) given off by natural gas is methane. Scientists agree that, of all the GHGs being measured regarding their effect on climate change, methane is the least well understood. Yet 20 percent of the methane in the atmosphere is created by gas drilling, and even more is lost during pipeline transportation, and in everyday use, as from a gas oven with a minor leak.
In fact, in one U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) test, methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas, or fracking, were 9,000 times higher than formerly reported.
Secondly, while natural gas is abundant, the supply is not endless, and claims of 200 years of coal (when in fact there may be as little as 50, or even 20) paint a scenario under which natural gas’s point of diminishing returns – in terms of drilling a well – might not be all that far away. The date moves even closer if we look at the environmental costs of fracking, and the likelihood that states like New York and Pennsylvania may actually ban the practice, or put so many limits on it that shale gas extraction becomes both uncertain and unprofitable.
That final premise also answers both the third and fourth arguments in favor of natural gas. It is relatively easy to extract, in terms of manpower, and cheap enough thanks to its current abundance, but the ease and cost remain appealing to energy companies only so long as they are allowed to use the latest technology (which includes geoseismic explosions to take “pictures” of gas deposits, horizontal drilling, fracking, and gas flaring).
The first is fairly innocuous. Most reported earthquakes are mild and highly localized. Of course, this is a new science and that can change at any time. Horizontal drilling appears to be equally harmless, though we won’t know for certain for at least a century. The effects of fracking – poisoned, flaming waters, sick livestock, and dying trees – have already been documented.
Gas flaring, or burning off, is reserved for gas finds where transportation infrastructure is lacking, or where the gas is contaminated with other, noncombustible gases and “cleaning” it is cost-prohibitive. But flaring is almost more pollutive than fracking, containing 250 toxins that cause cancer and blood-related diseases, and/or lung problems like asthma or bronchitis. It also causes acid rain, which kills lakes and trees with equal enthusiasm.
If fracking and flaring were prohibited, the price of gas would rise exponentially – a real deal breaker in an energy marketplace, where gas is historically the most volatile commodity.
For example, the rolling blackouts in Texas on February 2 were due to a failure of a group of coal-fired plants in the center of the state. However, it was a challenge the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, was ready to meet with natural gas peaking plants.
Trouble is, the natural-gas plants didn’t have enough gas, primarily due to a cold snap racing across the continent from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico to Vermont on the Atlantic coast – a cold front that pushed U.S. gas demand (and gas prices) the highest it has been since about 1981. The problem was further exacerbated by the freezing of Barnett Shale gas wells, which had to be shut down.
In the end, Texas power plant operators – who can read a balance sheet as readily as any Wall Street tycoon – chose cheap shutdowns over costlier peaking plant operations. On Feb. 2, trading spot prices for natural gas were a third higher than they had been on November 1 of 2011.
In the end, all that can be said for natural gas is that it is easy to store and transport, providing that both the storage facilities and the pipelines are within the continental U.S. Where pipelines cross international borders (for example, the Keystone XL from Canada, or the five pipelines from Mexico), this nation is only as secure as its weakest link.
This has never been truer, as witness news reports that say at least 1,600 Indians from the Punjab region have entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico since early 2010. Many are Sikhs, and claim religious persecution. None appear to be terrorists. Still, if almost 2,000 Indians can do it, what’s to stop a handful of terrorists in gas company coveralls sliding up the Pacific Coast like butter on a hot skillet?
We can give gas its due, and say that it is the best of the lot. What we can’t do is call it “green”. That slot goes to renewable technologies like solar and wind energy, where improvements in price and efficiency are happening so regularly that some experts foresee 50 percent of the world's energy from solar by 2050.
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Image sourced from: inspiredeconomist.com