Saturday, April 16, 2011

Natural Gas versus Coal: Clearing the Air on Methane Leakage

Natural Gas versus Coal: Clearing the Air on Methane Leakage
Last week, Cornell University professor Robert Howarth released a preliminary assessment questioning claims that natural gas is cleaner than coal when lifecycle emissions are taken into account. “When the total emissions of greenhouse gases are considered,” Howarth argues,  “[hydraulic fracturing]-obtained natural gas and coal from mountain-top removal probably have similar releases and in fact the natural gas may be worse in terms of consequences on global warming.”
Although Howarth does not provide much detail about his methodology, what he does include in his two-page draft left me extremely skeptical.  At Worldwatch, our optimism about natural gas’s ability to facilitate a swifter transition to a low-carbon economy is predicated on the assumption that consuming natural gas generates significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal, so I agree that it’s essential to consider climate and other environmental impacts over the fuels’ entire cycle. But in performing a lifecycle assessment, gas and coal must be held to the same standard, and it’s not clear that Howarth is doing this in his analysis.

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