Natural gas has long been considered a more environmentally friendly fossil fuel than oil, coal and gasoline.
However, a new study shows there is enough natural gas leaking across the globe to completely negate its climate benefits.
The report, commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund and carried out by environmental consulting group ICF International, looked at the amount of natural gas leaking from production sites on federal and tribal land throughout the U.S. It also examined phenomena like venting and flaring, processes in which natural gas producers purposely let gas leak into the atmosphere.
According to the UK Guardian, the EDF found that a stunning 65 billion cubic feet had leaked into the air throughout 2013 — amounting to $360 million in lost gas.
“That’s a big waste of what could be going into federal and tribal royalty coffers,” said EDF spokesman Jon Goldstein, pointing out that this money often goes toward state and local communities’ funding, as well.
But these leaks pose a greater problem than simple economic loss. Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is a greenhouse gas that’s 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The natural gas leaks observed are the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent of 5.6 million cars.
Throughout the last few decades, natural gas producers have been working in overdrive, particularly in the shale sector. The Energy Information Administration now estimates that shale gas production will reach 13.6 trillion cubic feet per year by 2035, making up half of the country’s natural gas output.
These leaks, in addition to contributing to global climate change, negatively impact communities throughout the Western states in which natural gas drilling primarily takes place. In Pinedale, WY, emissions from fracking and other production methods produced smog levels reminiscent of Los Angeles’ unshakable haze. In New Mexico, natural gas leaks created a methane “hot spot” that was visible from space.
And while Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming have all put measures in place that combat natural gas leaks since 2013, it’s clear that legislators have a long way to go on this issue.
Ultimately, natural gas can only be an environmentally friendly alternative to other fossil fuels when producers keep leaks to an absolute minimum.