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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 -- formerly thought to be 21-25 times the potency of carbon dioxide (CO2) over 100 years and 72 times over 20 years -- is now known to be 33 times the potency of CO2 over 100 years and 105 times worse than CO2 over 20 years. [See the 2009 study by NASA scientists here: (abstract) (full paper)] 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.
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) 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. has 5 existing LNG terminals and approximately 60 additional LNG terminals have been proposed, though the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has estimated that only 10 are needed (6 in the U.S.) to meet short-term demand in North America. More than this number have already been approved. Since the fracking boom, some of these LNG proposals have turned to trying to export gas to countries like China where gas prices are far higher.
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 new areas opened up by deep drilling technologies will likely extend that peak a bit.
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: