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:
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.
 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) .