Earth & Environment

April 1, 2020: Gas Is Not Green

Posted on April 01, 2020 at 12:00 AM

Climate Change. Some years ago, Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens was advocating switching from oil to gas, citing gas as a cleaner-burning fuel and calling it a useful “bridge” for moving away from oil dependence. A gas-powered vehicle generally emits less greenhouse gas (GHG) than a gasoline-powered vehicle. Indeed, the boom in horizontal drilling and fracking to tap gas reserves in shale has made fracked gas a cheaper fuel than coal and oil. In 2020, however, fracked gas is a bridge to nowhere, as climate change has become a worldwide emergency. We need to exert every effort to move rapidly away from gas, including incentivizing more electric vehicles, not vehicles that run on fracked gas, ensuring that new buildings are all electric, and planning for converting existing buildings from gas to all-electric power.

Fracking sites emit methane, a more powerful GHG than carbon dioxide. The current administration is exacerbating these harmful emissions by rolling back regulations to reduce these emissions. Pipelines are leaky: studies in the Boston area have identified hundreds of leaks and explosions in the Merrimack Valley near Boston and in the Washington, DC area, which dramatically illustrate the immediate danger of explosions from leaks in populated areas. Pipelines across the country are aging, resulting in the likelihood of increasing numbers of leaks and explosions. “As much as 4% of all gas produced by fracking is lost to leakage, and those releases appear to have contributed to recent sharp increases in atmospheric methane.”¹ Replacing these old pipes with new ones will be very costly: It makes more economic sense to substitute electric grids for new pipelines, and to move rapidly to powering our communities with electricity from clean sources.

Pollution. Fracking sites produce significant pollution²—contamination of ground and surface water from the chemicals used to extract the gas, noise and light pollution, radiation releases, and emissions of carcinogenic chemicals (such as benzene and formaldehyde) from compressor stations along pipelines. The DC Sierra Club’s recent fact sheet³ shows the surprisingly significant indoor air pollution from gas stoves, water heaters, and heating systems. Burning any fossil fuel releases pollutants. A principal indoor emission from burning gas is nitrogen dioxide (NO?), exposure to which is linked to increased respiratory problems, especially asthma. EPA research links long-term exposure to NO? to certain cancers. To protect against inhaling NO? emitted by gas stoves, use a ventilated hood, or better, go electric. New technology has greatly improved electric stoves and heat pumps.

Biogas. Gas utility companies have been promoting the use of biogas as a green alternative. Biogas is largely derived from livestock manure, landfills, and municipal waste (garbage). Unfortunately for this argument, biogas is still a greenhouse gas, i.e., largely methane, even if it is not derived from fossil deposits. Further, these resources are limited. Current information indicates that no more than 10% of current gas usage would be available from biological sources. Biogas is no bridge to our immediate need for carbon reduction.

—Jean Stewart, Chair, Earth and Environment Task Force


¹ New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 9, 2020.
² Ibid.
³ DC Sierra Club, Natural Gas: A Major Source of Indoor Air Pollution

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