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July 03, 2013 12:14 PM Obama’s Climate Action Plan: The Methane Problem With ‘Clean’ Natural Gas

By Tina Gerhardt

Last week, President Barack Obama presented his Climate Action Plan to the public. President Obama’s plan aims to 1. reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants, by using laws already on the books, such as the Clean Air Act; 2. prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change; and 3. lead international efforts to fight climate change.

Focusing on reducing carbon emissions is a move welcomed by environmentalists, who have been pushing the administration to have the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency establish and enforce limits on carbon emissions.

By focusing on carbon emissions, however, Obama’s climate change plan leaves out something very important. Had President Obama stated that the aim of his Climate Action Plan were to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he would have had to address one of the other less often named greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change: methane.

The main source of methane produced in the U.S., some 30 percent, is the natural gas and petroleum industry.

To be sure, carbon dioxide ranks highest among greenhouse gases, producing 84 percent of emissions, and the climate action plan also aims to reduce the other greenhouse gas emissions.

But methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas, accounting for 9 percent of domestic greenhouse gases. Worse, according to the EPA, methane’s impact on climate change is 20 times greater than carbon when measured over a 100-year period.

And methane is the primary component of natural gas.

Obama’s Climate Action Plan notes that “since 1990, methane emissions in the United States have decreased 9 percent.” Sounds like methane emissions are under control. But the figure, parsed further, tells a story that undercuts the narrative of “clean natural gas.”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) states that “methane emissions declined steady from 1990 to 2001, as emissions from coal mining and landfills fell,” corroborating the figures cited in the Climate Action Plan.

But it also notes that “U.S. methane emissions from natural gas systems grew from 1990 to 2009 by 27 percent largely because of increases in natural gas consumption.” These figures show something disturbing about the trajectory of methane emissions and its production by natural gas, in contrast to what President Obama had to say about natural gas—after petroleum the second largest energy source in America—in his climate speech:

Now, […] we’re […] producing more cleaner-burning natural gas than any other country on Earth. And, again, sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.
The bottom line is natural gas is creating jobs. It’s lowering many families’ heat and power bills. And it’s the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future.

But the reality is that if we continue on our current natural gas trajectory, reducing the emissions from coal mining and landfills, and increasing natural gas use for households and businesses, we’ll likely see methane emissions continue to grow.

While President Obama acknowledged that natural gas produces methane emissions, he argued that the industry will “make sure that we are not seeing methane emissions.”

But this is very optimistic. Simply stating we will not see methane emissions, without outlining how that will work, does not mean the industry won’t produce more methane.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the plan to increase the production of natural gas is that a lot of the increase in production will occur through fracking, the controversial process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside.

The extraction of natural gas has an important impact on climate change. A a study published in the journal Climate Change, “Methane and the Greenhouse Gas Footprint of Natural Gas from Shale Formations” found that “methane emissions are at least 30 percent more than and perhaps more than twice as great as those from conventional gas” extraction. In other words, the process of fracking itself unleashes more methane than the “conventional gas”, that is, the gas not trapped in shale or requiring fracking for extraction. More fracking equals more methane emissions.

“Methane,” it continued, “is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential that is far greater than that of carbon dioxide, particularly over the first few decades following emission.” For example, “compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 percent greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon.”

The study shows that methane’s impact is greater in the short-term, taking a 20-year or less horizon, while the EPA and its proponents often look at its impact over 100 years. So it appears the EPA is undercalculating methane’s impact.

Methane’s real role in climate change may even be understated. According to a piece at Bloomberg News, in April the EPA proposed “to change its calculation of methane’s climate intensity.” One metric ton of methane was thought to be equivalent to 21 metric tons of carbon dioxide. It may actually be as high as 25 metric tons.

Additionally, the EPA’s current estimates do not include a shorter time frame, which would be vital to include given the urgency of climate change. Some calculations for methane’s greenhouse gas potency in the short term estimate it to be 70 to 100 times higher than carbon dioxide.

There’s another added factor. The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for ensuring that the natural gas industry drafts rules that protect people and the environment. On May 16, 2013, the BLM adopted legislation in a 171-page document. According to DeSmogBlog, the BLM also revealed that it will adopt a model bill written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), known for being funded by the oil and gas industry, and in this case written by ExxonMobil. Given ALEC’s funding sources, questions abound about a conflict and what would motivate its commitment to drafting stringent regulation.

The EIA’s American Energy Outlook 2013 — which predicts a growth resulting from the fracking of shale gas, notes that due to improvements in efficiency standards and increases in affordable renewable energy the country may soon produce more natural gas than it needs. EIA predicts that “the United States becomes a net exporter of natural gas in 2020.”

Is that the ultimate aim of the Obama administration’s energy policy? To continue to extract natural gas and produce methane, which contributes to global warming, even though our domestic need for it might plummet, so that it can exported?

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Tina Gerhardt is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Grist, The Nation and The Progressive.