Gas has environmental benefits, with caveats

The International Energy Agency said comparing gas to coal sets the bar too low.
By Daniel J. Graeber  |  Oct. 23, 2017 at 7:20 AM
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Oct. 23 (UPI) -- Natural gas offers a cleaner power source when compared with other fuels, but a report Monday from the IEA said comparing gas to coal sets the bar too low.

The International Energy Agency said in a preview of its World Energy Outlook, due next month, that natural gas demand grows through 2040 in every market model it used. The pace of growth is driven by affordability, a more interconnected market and the case made that gas offers a low-carbon option relative to other fossil fuels.

"The role that natural gas can play in the future of global energy is inextricably linked to its ability to help address environmental problems," the report read.

Natural gas holds a slight edge over coal in the United States, the largest economy in the world. Drawing on strong production from inland shale basins, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported natural gas accounted for 31 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in the first half of the year, compared with 30 percent for coal and 20 percent for renewables.

The IEA said, however, that even if natural gas is a better option than coal, that comparison is skewed.

"The environmental case for gas does not depend on beating the emissions performance of the most carbon-intensive fuel, but in ensuring that its emission intensity is as low as practicable," the report read.

Carbon dioxide emissions from gas are 40 percent lower than coal. The combustion of natural gas, however, produces high levels of nitrogen oxides, a potent greenhouse gas. Gas combustion accounts for about 10 percent of the global total.

Ties between methane emissions and natural gas, meanwhile, may complicate the case. The IEA said there's very little consensus over how much gas production is associated with methane emissions and that may be a "critical issue" for long-term forecasts.

"Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and the uncertainty over the level of methane emitted to the atmosphere raises questions about the extent of the climate benefits that gas can bring," the report read.

Methane leaked from a faulty well at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in California from late October 2015 to early 2016 following a blowout. Residents in the area were forced to relocate to temporary housing while state, federal and the Southern California Gas Co. worked to control the leak.

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