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See our printable Natural Gas Factsheet (PDF)
Natural gas is a fossil fuel that is often promoted as "cleaner" than coal, but which has its own serious environmental hazards. Natural gas is NOT a "transition" fuel. Natural gas extraction threatens ecosystems from northern Alaska and Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, including drilling on farms, public lands, forests and parks, in the Rocky Mountains and other coal-field communities, off of U.S. coastal waters and possibly even under the Great Lakes. Deep drilling technologies such as "hydraulic fracturing" or "fracking" have recently opened areas of the U.S. to drilling, leaving a legacy of groundwater pollution. Hydraulic fracturing is the process of injecting water, salt, and a cocktail of hazardous chemicals deep underground to break open rock formations from which natural gas is extracted. Hydraulic fracking techniques threaten communities facing drilling operations and downstream communities, including communities near "frac" wastewater treatment plants. This wastewater can contain radioactive materials, high levels of salt that affects aquatic life, and carcinogenic elements and compounds such as arsenic and benzene.
Pipelines and compressor stations add to the harms, crossing all sorts of ecosystems. Even water bodies like Lake Erie and the Long Island Sound have faced proposals to bury pipelines in underwater trenches that involve stirring up toxic sentiment accumulated on lake/sound floors.
Natural gas power plants are significant air pollution sources, releasing hazardous air pollutants, global warming pollution and fine particulate matter.
Natural gas is worse than coal for global warming
While the smokestack emissions from gas-burning power plants are lower than coal, gas is worse because of the leakage from the wells to the pipelines and compressor stations to the end-uses -- since methane (the principle component of natural gas) is far more potent at heating the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (which is produced when coal or gas are burned).
The newest science on methane's global warming potential shows that it's far more potent than previously thought:
Methane's Global Warming Potential (number of times worse than CO2)
|Over 100 years||Over 20 years||According to|
|21||72||U.S. EPA (operating on 20-year old science)|
|25||U.S. EPA's proposal, as of April 2013|
|33||105||2009 NASA Scientists' research (abstract) (full paper)|
|34||86||International Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report, 2013 (see Table 8.7 on p714 in Chapter 8 of the report)|
Considering that it's the near-term (20 year) time frame in which we must avoid global warming tipping points (like the thawing of the arctic tundra that would release far more methane), these higher 20-year figures should be used when evaluating the global warming impacts of methane. Despite this updated scientific understanding, EPA still regulates methane as if it's only 21 times worse than CO2. Find this discussed more here.
If the total leakage exceeds 3.2%, natural gas becomes worse for the climate than coal. Recent studies have found actual leakage rates of 4% over a Colorado gas field and 9% leakage in the Uinta Basin of Utah.
Further studies on the global warming impacts of natural gas, and gas leakage rates, can be found here:
Natural gas power plants, prices and import / export
Since around 1997, there have been somewhere on the order of 1,000 proposals for new natural gas power plants in the U.S. Approximately 90% of power plant proposals in the late 1990s were for natural gas. Only about 400 of these were built and some aren't even operating, because of then-high gas prices. Many were defeated by local opposition or withdrawn for economic reasons, since the industry went overboard. Since the fracking boom, a new (but far smaller) wave of proposed new natural gas power plants, and conversations from coal to gas, is is sweeping the country. Some coal, "biomass" and nuclear faciltiies are closing because they cannot compete with the temporarily low prices of gas.
97% of natural gas consumed in the U.S. is from the U.S. and Canada. However, conventional natural gas production has peaked in North America. Until the fracking boom, more wells were drilled, but gas production had leveled off. Between 1999 and 2004, natural gas prices have tripled as imports from Canada slowed and domestic production failed to keep up with demand. To feed the increasing demand, liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminals were proposed, to enable imports so that the U.S. can use its military might to dominate the world competing for the remaining natural gas, now that oil production has started peaking globally. The U.S. had 5 LNG terminals and out of approximately 60 additional LNG terminals proposed, six new ones were built, mostly on the Gulf Coast.
Since the fracking boom, some of these LNG proposals have turned to trying to export gas to countries like China and Japan where gas prices are far higher. As of 2013, there are over 30 proposals for LNG export terminals in North America.
Natural gas extraction was expected to peak globally around 2020, leading to serious global conflicts as China and other large and growing economies continue down the path of increased dependence on fossil fuels. However, the fracking boom opened up new areas which will extend that peak a bit, but not nearly as much as the industry purports.
This threat analysis for the (now withdrawn) Keyspan LNG terminal proposal in Providence, Rhode Island provides a far more honest and detailed assessment of the terrorism threat to LNG tankers. For some of the most serious threats, see the sections on large caliber rockets, shaped charges and attacks via boat starting on pages 89, 96 and 101, respectively.
Opposition to LNG: