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Five reasons why regulating fracking can’t make natural gas a “bridge fuel”

At the Las Vegas Democratic debate in February, climate change got its first real airtime of the primaries. It provided a chance to see the then-wide field of Democratic candidates test their ideas on the public and on each other, and - I hope - signaled a more robust climate discussion as the election moves forward.

One moment, however, signaled a troubling development. When candidates Amy Klobuchar and Mike Bloomberg were pressed on their support for fracking, both doubled down. And Bloomberg argued that, if we can “enforce some of the rules on fracking so that they don't release methane,” then gas can serve as climate-friendly fuel to rely on while we wait for more wind turbines and solar energy. This idea – that regulation can make gas climate-friendly – is a new twist on an old argument. But it’s still wrong.

The idea that gas can serve as a “bridge” between coal and a truly clean future can be traced back to 2010. That year, as the fracking boom was well underway, an MIT study funded in part by the natural gas industry described how gas might play a role in reducing the nation’s global warming impact. As burning gas produces half as much carbon dioxide as coal, the study argued that gas could help lower emissions during the development of truly clean technologies. Four years later, President Obama called natural gas “the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.” And soon, the “bridge” argument was everywhere, helping fracking spread across the country.

But then a trickle, and soon a flood of evidence exposed a fatal flaw in the bridge fuel argument. Researchers discovered that the extraction, processing and transportation of gas were leaking methane, the main component of natural gas and a potent global warming pollutant. Their calculations soon revealed that these leaks are so enormous (think millions of tons each year) that they likely wipe out just about any climate benefit of gas compared to coal.

Bloomberg’s argument is a new twist on the debunked idea of gas as a “bridge fuel.” It acknowledges the climate impact of methane, and proposes a regulation panacea. But while it is good to hear methane control mentioned on the national stage... sorry, still wrong.

Five reasons why methane regulation cannot make natural gas a climate-friendly “bridge” fuel:

  1. Methane leaks are hard to control. To date, no one has proven that regulating methane leaks is possible. One study from California, for example – where, the authors contend, the “oil and gas infrastructure is arguably subject to the most comprehensive emissions control regulations in the U.S.” – found high emissions from gas production.[1] One reason gas is so hard to control is that leaks from just a small fraction of well components, so called “super emitters,” may account for more than half of methane emitted into the atmosphere.
  2. Measuring methane leaks is hard. One reason methane is hard to regulate is that it’s hard to measure this colorless, odorless gas in the first place. As we found in our 2016 report, researchers have simply not found a way to consistently measure how much gas wells and infrastructure leak, or how much these leaks have affected atmospheric methane levels. All this confusion makes controlling leaks and understanding broader impacts just about impossible. Just last week, a study estimated that atmospheric methane has more than doubled since pre-industrial times, a much higher estimate than previous research had suggested. As the authors told the New York Times, “We’ve identified a gigantic discrepancy that shows the industry needs to, at the very least, improve their monitoring.” But as I’ve suggested, it’s not clear whether truly accurate monitoring is even possible.
  3. To prevent methane leaks, you have to go way beyond wells. Anywhere you have gas – wells, compressor stations, storage facilities, long distance pipelines, the pipes that come to our houses, and yup, our pilot lights – you can have leaks. One recent study found that major cities are leaking twice as much methane as previously believed. As a result, stopping leaks to the extent necessary to make gas a viable climate solution would require going way beyond wells – it would mean strong rules and enforcement up and down the supply chain.
  4. Regulations can be overturned. Even if regulation can overcome all these problems – leaky components, measurement problems, and a whole supply chain worth of leaks – that still leaves one giant problem: Regulations can always be overturned. We have to look back just six months to find an example of a fossil fuel-loving administration rolling back methane rules. Even if the next president puts those rules back in place, there’s nothing to keep a future administration from pulling the same rug out from under us, once again.
  5. Gas is plenty bad for climate, with or without leaks. Even if you magically prevent all methane leaks from gas, guess what? Gas is still bad. Burning gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal. But half of coal is still a long, long, way from zero – and zero is just what science says we need to achieve by 2050 to prevent the worst impacts of global warming.

For years now, we’ve known that gas, just like coal, is wreaking havoc on the climate. The false promise of gas helped create a giant new industry and led to billions of dollars – which could have been invested in a renewable energy future – instead being poured into new fossil fuel infrastructure. This revamped “bridge fuel” argument, with a new regulatory twist, could prolong this damage.

Of course, the gas industry should be heavily regulated, including for the sake of the communities who live near fracking wells, and the communities put in danger by gas infrastructure. But to assume that we can use regulation to stop the climate pollution caused by gas is wrong and dangerous. We already spent a whole decade definitively learning that gas isn’t the answer. Let’s not do it again. 

[1] Specifically, the study estimated that more than 5 percent of the gas produced in California “is leaked during associated production and all processing and storage phases of the natural gas system.”

Photo of flaring at a Pennsylvania fracking well. Credit: WCN 24/7 via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) .