No one really knows how much better natural gas is compared to coal, greenhouse-gas wise. That’s because no one knows how much natural gas leaks into the atmosphere during production and distribution. Although burning natural gas releases something like half the amount of carbon dioxide as burning coal, leaks of natural gas can offset that advantage since natural gas contains methane, itself a powerful greenhouse gas.
This week, the World Resources Institute released a new report on natural gas leaks. Here’s how the Washington Post summarizes it:
The bad news: We have no idea how much methane is actually seeping out of our natural-gas wells and pipelines. The good news: The technologies to plug those leaks are readily available, but new regulations may be necessary to make sure they’re widely adopted.
Multiple studies are now underway trying to address the bad news by quantifying leaks. The World Resources study suggests that whatever those studies find, several measures that can reduce leaks should be employed simply because they make economic sense, paying for themselves through reduced waste in just three years. According to WRI, “Using plunger lift systems, switching the existing stock of high-bleed pneumatic devices to low-bleed equivalents, and using methane leak detection and repair technologies at processing plants and compressor stations can reduce emissions by another 30 percent, bringing the overall leakage rate down to just over 1 percent.” That’s low enough to ensure natural gas is better than coal.