See our printable Natural Gas Factsheet
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||Source|
|21||72||U.S. EPA (operating on the scientific understanding from the 1990s; archive of EPA page using this old figure as recently as April 13, 2015)|
|25||U.S. EPA's new regulations, proposed April 2013, effective Jan. 1, 2014 (see Table 2) (based on 2007 IPCC data) EPA is knowingly using this outdated GWP in its June 2016 Oil and Natural Gas Rule and its August 2016 Landfill Gas Rule simply "to be consistent with and comparable to key Agency emission quantification programs such as the Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks (GHG Inventory), and the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP)." See footnotes 15 and 5 in these rules, respectively.|
|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)|
|27.2 (biogenic) - 29.8 (fossil)||80.8 (biogenic) - 82.5 (fossil)||International Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report, 2021 (see Table 7.15 on p1739 (7-125) in the Full 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 20-some times worse than CO2. Find this discussed more in these articles:
- More Bad News For Fracking: IPCC Warns Methane Traps Much More Heat Than We Thought (Climate Progress, Oct 2013)
- More on methane: EPA reexamines potency of greenhouse gas (May 2013)
Natural gas is unavoidably worse than coal for the climate, due to methane leakage throughout the system. It used to be thought that if the total leakage exceeds 3.2%, natural gas becomes worse for the climate than coal. It's now known that natural gas is worse than coal if leakage exceeds just 2.8%. Recent studies have found actual leakage rates of 4% over a Colorado gas field and 9% leakage in the Uinta Basin of Utah.
Leakage in gas distribution systems is also extensive. Studies in Boston and Washington, DC have documented this:
- Boston, MA: Environmental Pollution (2013) - see related stories at EDF, Boston Globe and CLF
- Washington, DC: Environmental Science & Technology (2014) - see related stories in NPR, Live Science, Washington Post, Huffington Post, and USA Today
The latest science shows that EPA has underestimated methane emissions from fracking by a factor of 100 to 1,000 times. See:
- Toward a better understanding and quantification of methane emissions from shale gas development (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 2014)
- Up To 1,000 Times More Methane Released At Gas Wells Than EPA Estimates, Study Finds (Climate Progress, 4/15/2014)
- EPA drastically underestimates methane released at drilling sites (Los Angeles Times, 4/14/2014)
Further studies on the global warming impacts of natural gas, and gas leakage rates, can be found here:
- Research by Prof. Howarth at Cornell University
- Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy
- Sourcewatch: Natural gas leakage rates
- Climate Progress:
- Bridge To Nowhere? NOAA Confirms High Methane Leakage Rate Up To 9% From Gas Fields, Gutting Climate Benefit
- Bombshell Study: High Methane Emissions Measured Over Gas Field "May Offset Climate Benefits of Natural Gas"
- Natural Gas Bombshell: Switching From Coal to Gas Increases Warming for Decades, Has Minimal Benefit Even in 2100
- Scientific American: Fracking Would Emit Large Quantities of Greenhouse Gases
- Gas is not clean energy
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 facilities 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.
Natural Gas Extraction / Hydraulic Fracturing ("Fracking")
Natural Gas Contaminants and Health Hazards
- Medical-Environmental Report
(includes info on natural gas contaminants and their health hazards, including lead, mercury, radon and more)
- "Un-Well: Concerns are mounting over health effects of gas drilling"
- Natural Gas Health Hazards
- Natural Gas: Avoidable Health Hazard
- Chemical Analysis of Natural Gas
- Coal-bed Methane
Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)
- LNG Factsheet
- Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) LNG page
- FERC maps of Existing, Approved, Proposed/Potential Import and Proposed/Potential Export LNG Terminals in North America.
- Public Citizen LNG Page (includes LNG fact sheets)
- Public Safety and FERC's LNG Spin, What Citizens Aren't Being Told (Pipeline Safety Trust report, 5/14/2005)
- 5/5/2005 Presentation by FERC Chairman Pat Wood before Stanford Washington Research Group 2005 Institutional Policy Conference (p20 shows that only 10 LNG terminals are needed in North America to meet short-term demand -- two in Atlantic Canada, two in Mexico, and two each on the east, west and gulf coasts of the U.S.)
- Stay Informed! Join the LNG Safety Email List (Searchable list archives available)
- Sandia National Laboratory Report on Terrorism and Accident Risks from LNG Shipping (Dec 2004)
- Study spells out high toll on city in LNG (Boston Globe, Dec. 21, 2004)
- "LNG Facilities in Urban Areas: A Security Risk Management Analysis for Rhode Island," May 2005.
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:
- reEarth (opposition to Bahamas LNG terminal)
- LNG Watch (California anti-LNG network) and their excellent Resources page
- RiverVision (opposed 5 proposed LNG terminals in Oregon)
- LNG Danger To Our Communities (Consumer Protection Attorney Tim Riley)
- Mobile Bay Watch (Mobile, AL)
- Vallejo for Community Planned Renewal - successful effort that stopped LNG in Vallejo, CA
- Save the Brewsters (MA)
- Coalition for Responsible Siting of LNG Facilities (Fall River, MA)
- Public Safety Issues at the Proposed Fall River LNG Terminal (1/12/2004 report containing information useful to critiquing all LNG proposals)
- Safer Waters in Massachusetts (Nahant, MA)
- FairPlay for Harpswell (Harpswell, ME)
- Save Passamaquoddy Bay - voters reject LNG terminal in Maine
- Sierra Club of Mississippi (Pascagoula, MS)
- LNG Community Focus (Logan Township, NJ)
- Broadwater facility (Long Island Sound, NY / CT)
- Philadelphia LNG Proposal (PA)
- Rhode Island for Safe Energy (RISE) (fought expansion of Providence, RI LNG terminal and proposed terminal by Weaver's Cove in Fall River, MA)
- Border Power Plant Working Group (US/Mexico border region)
- Greenpeace Mexico (Baja California, Mexico)
PCBs in Natural Gas
- PCBs in Natural Gas
- PCB levels in natural gas found as high as 1,250 parts per million
- Texas Eastern dumped PCB contaminated liquids in 89 sites in 14 States
- "the massive PCB contamination of the natural gas transmission system of Texas Eastern Corporation, a case which required complex, long term clean-up."
- Duke Energy has PCB contamination problems as well (from Duke Energy's 1997 Annual Report)
- EPA's Rules on PCBs in Natural Gas Lines
Understanding Title V of the Clean Air Act
- Pipeline Safety Trust
- Longhorn debate calls attention to pipelines (Austin American-Statesman articles on Pipeline Hazards)
- About Pipelines and Pipeline Safety
- Industry Newsletter on Pipelines
- Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration