February 1st, 2014 ~ The American Natural Gas Alliance (T. Boone Pickens, the Koch brothers, and Pals), has recently been airing TV commercials to tout the significantly lower greenhouse emissions of natural gas electric powerplants relative to coal and fuel oil powered plants. It's a craven and despicable shell game.
Without question, in operation, natural gas powerplants produce up to 50% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than their coal and oil counterparts. So why do I call it a shell game? Because we're not supposed to ask HOW that natural gas gets to the powerplant or the effects on our environment of extracting and transporting that gas to the powerplant relative to other fossil fuels.
First, we need to understand that natural gas, at normal temperatures and atmospheric pressures is... a gas. Coal is a solid and fuel oil is a liquid. We know that coal and oil extraction are dirty businesses. In October 2000, the Martin County, Kentucky coal slurry spill wiped out all aquatic life in Cold Water Fork and Wolf Creek. In December, 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Coal Ash slurry spill into the Clinch and Emory rivers was described as the largest in U.S. history. I don't think I need to document the 1989 Exxon Valdez, 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon, or 2013 Mayflower tar-sands oil spills here. We know how devastating those were.
Generally speaking though, once coal and oil are in the hopper or tank cars their effects on our environment usually need to wait until they're consumed as fuel in powerplants, homes, and vehicles. Extracting and transporting natural gas is a whole 'nuther circle of Hell. Getting natural gas from the extraction site to the consumer involves several infrastructures that are rife with problems. We've heard the ANGA bullshit about their "safe" fracking operations even as we watch videos of dead livestock and flames shooting out of kitchen faucets.
The primary combustible component of natural gas is methane (CH4), a potent greenhouse gas with an average greenhouse effect relative to carbon dioxide (CO2), of anywhere from 21% greater over a 100 year period, to a staggering 72% greater if averaged over a 20 year period. Methane molecules remain intact and hyper-effective upon our climate for at least EIGHT years, before eventually breaking down to CO2 (still a greenhouse gas) and water.
Pre-1950's cast iron pipelines account for only 3% of America's total natural gas pipeline system, yet they account for over 25% of the leakage in the network. Most (not all) of the oldest infrastructure exists in the Northeast where natural gas has been providing heating and cooking fuel to tens of millions for over a century. As evidenced by this graphic depiction of gas leaks around Boston by "Life On Earth", natural gas leaks are everywhere.
Each hand-off of natural gas, from fracking site, to pipeline terminus, to rail, to truck, to storage tanks, presents an opportunity for release of that gas into our atmosphere; where, again, it persists in its super-greenhouse effect for at least EIGHT years. Natural gas is NOT the environmentally warm, fuzzy alternative to coal and oil. Natural gas is their equally devastating fossil fuel cousin.
Fossil fuels. An appropriate term for Coal, Oil, AND Natural Gas. All come from the rotting corpses of now extinct life. All could easily lead to our own extinction if we continue their use. As the ANGA ads say, "Think about it".