Natural gas may be the most painless way to transition into low-carbon energy, according to a press release from Cornell University. Professor Lawrence M. Cathles of Cornell University has recently published a study called “Assessing the Greenhouse Impact of Natural Gas” in the newest edition of the peer-reviewed journal Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems.
Findings say that, “Although a more rapid transition to natural gas from coal and some oil produces a greater overall benefit for climate change, the 40-percent of low-carbon energy benefit remains no matter how quickly the transition is made, and no matter the effect of ocean modulation or other climate regulating forces.” This basically means that no matter when we do it or what else is happening in our climate when we do, switching to natural gas is 40 percent better for the environment than what we’re doing now, and may be a smart choice for climate conservationists who are willing to compromise.
Prof. Cathles writes, “From a greenhouse point of view, it would be better to replace coal electrical facilities with nuclear plants, wind farms and solar panels, but replacing them with natural gas stations will be faster, cheaper and achieve 40 percent of the low-carbon-fast benefit.” Prof. Cathles also says that although many critics of natural gas transition cite high leakage rates (especially in hydraulic fracking extraction), data from recent industry and the Environmental Protection Agency reveals negligible leakage rates. The benefit of a quick transition and what Prof. Cathles calls “…a buffer when solar and wind production wanes,” makes natural gas substitution a pragmatic choice.
“The most important message of the calculations reported here is that substituting natural gas for coal and oil is a significant way to reduce greenhouse forcing, regardless of how long the substitution takes,” Prof. Cathles writes. “A faster transition to low-carbon energy sources would decrease greenhouse warming further, but the substitution of natural gas for other fossil fuels is equally beneficial in percentage terms no matter how fast the transition.”
Regardless of whether or not natural gas is more beneficial for global warming, the recently developed method of hydraulic fracking is the most controversial way to extract this useful fossil fuel. In a New Yorker article entitled “Burning Love,” Elizabeth Kolbert explains the process of extraction as “[using] a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals to open up fissures in the stone through which [natural gas] can escape.” Ms. Kolbert also describes the “Halliburton Loophole,” created by former Vice-President Dick Cheney to keep fracking exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Although further investigation and consideration of the environmental impact related to how we extract natural gas is necessary, Prof. Cathles has at least proven that natural is better than coal “from a greenhouse point of view.”