The Case Against Natural Gas
Updated: Aug 19, 2020
by Katie Rygg
Last month, ColorPenfieldGreen signed on in support of a letter to the NY Public Service Commission by the Alliance for a Green Economy and Renewable Heat Now. They asked NY State to develop a plan that aligns with the Climate Act of 2019 and rapidly and justly transitions our homes away from natural gas through beneficial electrification of our homes. Why would we support this effort?
According to the data pictured, natural gas produces half the amount of CO2 of coal when burned so it appears that this is a sensible alternative - that it would have half the impact on global warming.
There are three problems with this conclusion:
Half the CO2 is still a whole lot of planet warming molecules.
The process to extract natural gas, fracking, leads to contamination of water and air pollution.
Fracked gas* is primarily methane (CH4), a potent Greenhouse gas itself that is released into the atmosphere during the process of getting it to your home. Methane is ~25x better at trapping heat than CO2 over 100 years or ~80x greater over 20 years. (Methane is relatively short-lived in the atmosphere: 12 year lifespan compared to CO2’s 5-200 year life, hence the difference in warming potential).
* Environmental groups object to the term "natural gas" and are working to drop the misleading descriptor, instead just calling it gas or fracked gas. Natural gas is emitted through natural processes (discussed later) but hydraulic fracturing is not a natural process. I have dropped "natural" in the rest of the article (except where it appears in quotes).
In 2014, a study in Science determined that gas (taking into account the CO2 produced in combustion and the CH4 released in the lifecycle of production) was in fact still better than coal in terms of their impact on climate change – but not by much. If too much methane was emitted, the benefits would be completely lost.
The remainder of this article (about a 13 minute read):
explores why the gas industry is not the "clean" energy choice they market themselves as
discusses the climate justice alliance's Just Transition
talks about local groups' efforts to reduce gas infrastructure
discusses three things that the town of Penfield can do to transition away from gas
lists things that individuals can do in their own homes
There are some benefits to gas right now **
Currently, gas is reliable and locally abundant. In fact, NY state sits on top of an enormous reservoir of oil and gas in the Marcellus Shale which stretches into Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and Ohio. It also burns cleaner than other fossil fuels meaning lower amounts of co-pollutants are produced like particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). These chemicals wreak havoc on the respiratory system and lead to high rates of asthma and many other health problems in communities that breathe them in all day every day. Other advantages of gas: when the power goes out, you can still cook on a gas stove top, and home chefs love the control they have with instant on, instant off, and every setting between.
** In the near future, battery systems and renewables like wind and solar (and induction cook tops) will provide all of these benefits without the GHGs.
How much do New Yorkers rely on gas?
Let's start by looking at the electric grid. We get approximately 40% of our electricity from fossil fuels, 30% from nuclear, 25% from hydroelectric, and 7-10% from renewables. More than half of our fossil-fuel sourced electricity comes from gas fired plants. Many of these are dual-fuel, meaning that in winter months, when demand for gas is high for heating, the power generating facilities can switch to burning petroleum products. We have four nuclear power plants but one, Indian Point which produces 12% of our electric needs right now is scheduled for decommission in 2021. We are very fortunate to have access to the clean electricity from Niagara falls. The Robert Moses Niagara hydroelectric power plant is the third largest in the US and produces 2.4 gigawatts of electricity! Renewables have doubled in capacity in the last 10 years but will need to seriously accelerate in growth if NY is going to meet the ambitious goal of 70% renewable energy by 2030.
In my research, I found a fascinating, detailed, interactive map of all of the electricity producing facilities in NY – complete with location, fuel type, how much electricity it can produce, and who owns it. I highly recommend checking it out. It will be very interesting to watch the growth in renewables over the coming years on this map!
We also burn gas directly in many of our homes. More than half (57%) of New York residents use this fossil fuel to heat their homes and hot water, and many of us use it to cook our food.
So again, why should we transition away from gas?
In more detail, the three main reasons are:
1. Fracked gas, primarily methane (CH4) is still a fossil fuel and the combustion of any hydrocarbon produces the Greenhouse gas, CO2, which contributes to global warming.
2. The process to extract gas (hydraulic fracturing or fracking) contaminates water and pollutes air.
While we sit on top of one of the largest reserves of oil and gas in country, we have very few wells in operation. Those that are were up and running before the moratorium placed on hydraulic fracking in NY state in 2008. After years of non-committal, Governor Cuomo eventually banned on the process in 2014. This past January, Cuomo committed to a permanent ban on fracking in NY. This 176 page document, from NY’s Department of Environmental Conservation details the potential environmental impacts of fracking and it is a long document because there are many dozens of potential environmental impacts. Here's the table of contents:
So we know extracting and processing gas is bad but we still use an awful lot of it in this state. New York consumed 1.3 trillion cubic feet of gas in 2018, primarily from Canada and Pennsylvania. We have shifted the pollution to another location – not eliminated it. Between 2009 and 2015, State Impact Pennsylvania tracked more than 4,000 PA Department of Environmental Protection violations, including nearly 500 “failure to properly store, transport, process or dispose of a residual waste” many of which were just south of the NY/PA border. In late June, the PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a report of the grand jury’s two year investigation concluding that there has been a systemic failure of the state environment and health departments in regulating the shale gas drilling industry and protecting public health. Mr. Shapiro states, “There remains a profound gap between our constitutional mandate for clean air and pure water, and the realities facing Pennsylvanians who live in the shadow of fracking giants and their investors.”
And the third reason we should transition away:
3. Methane is released at every step of gas production and is a more effective heat trapping Greenhouse gas than CO2 by a factor of ~25x over a 100 year period and emissions are on the rise globally. There is far more methane in the atmosphere now than at any pre-industrial time (just like CO2). We talk a great deal about carbon emissions, but methane is a major problem, too.
A Comparison of Two Greenhouse Gases: Carbon Dioxide and Methane
Methane is Released Throughout the Life cycle of Gas
According to the EPA, in 2018, 28% of methane emissions were due to Natural Gas and Petroleum Systems. “Methane is emitted to the atmosphere during the production, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution of natural gas.” The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies put out a report on the subject in 2017: Methane Emissions: From Blind Spot to Spotlight. The authors state:
Some of the emissions are deliberate or part of a system’s design. Examples include releasing well gas during production operations, the use of gas pressure to actuate valves, and emergency venting for safety reasons. Other emissions are unintentional (sometimes referred to as fugitive emissions) and usually proactively managed by the industry. These include leaks from pipelines, valves, joints, and accidental damage.
Main sources of methane emissions in the gas supply chain
There’s no question that leaks happen but the amounts released by the oil and gas industry are unclear. Some studies report methane emissions at the rate of 1.5-2% of gas sales globally while others believe it is much higher. A study done at Harvard reported leaks from one basin that supplies >30% of the gas and oil in this country amounted to 3.7% loss.
In February of this year, a new study was published in Nature (led by Benjamin Hmiel, a postdoctoral student at the University of Rochester!) and summarized in a Washington Post article that looked at methane levels in air pockets trapped in ice cores from pre-industrial times. Because methane from fossil fuels have a different carbon signature (very little to no radioactive carbon-14), the researchers could determine how much of the methane in the air pockets came from natural “geological sources” like undersea seeps and mud volcanoes. Because the natural methane levels (and this is an appropriate use of the word "natural") are lower than previously assumed, the authors conclude that the contributions from industry must be higher than we estimated – by a lot – as much as 25-40% higher. Not everyone agrees with this conclusion but there’s no doubt that more research is needed to understand the full impact this source of energy is having on the environment.
However large the methane leaks prove to be, the good news is that methane, unlike carbon dioxide, does have monetary value to the industry. Therefore companies do have a financial incentive to contain and minimize leaks. But that fact in no way guarantees responsible behavior.
Super-emitters of methane
Sometimes emission events can be extremely large and are dubbed “super-emitters.” In some cases, super-emitters may be intentional: methane vented as a safety measure, for example. More often, however, they occur following a catastrophic failure, malfunction, or operational error.
Super-emitting deserted wells have been in the news recently. An article in the NY Times by Hiroko Tabuchi on July 17th, 2020 reported that as oil and gas companies go bankrupt, they are abandoning wells and allowing them to spew methane into the atmosphere indefinitely because they do not have the money to cap them properly – a problem that they are leaving to taxpayers to deal with.
Here’s an example of the situation:
The day the debt-ridden Texas oil producer MDC Energy filed for bankruptcy eight months ago, a tank at one of its wells was furiously leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. As of last week, dangerous, invisible gases were still spewing into the air.
By one estimate, the company would need more than $40 million to clean up its wells if they were permanently closed. But the debts of MDC’s parent company now exceed the value of its assets by more than $180 million.
In the months before its bankruptcy filing, though, the company managed to pay its chief executive $8.5 million in consulting fees, its top lender, the French investment bank Natixis, later alleged in bankruptcy court.
Here are some other examples of executive compensation just prior to bankruptcy:
Whiting Petroleum, a major shale driller in North Dakota that sought bankruptcy protection in April, approved almost $15 million in cash bonuses for its top executives six days before its bankruptcy filing.
Chesapeake Energy, a shale pioneer, declared bankruptcy last month, just weeks after it paid $25 million in bonuses to a group of executives.
And Diamond Offshore Drilling secured a $9.7 million tax refund under the Covid-19 stimulus bill Congress passed in March, before filing to reorganize in bankruptcy court the next month. Then it won approval from a bankruptcy judge to pay its executives the same amount, as cash incentives.
And this is just the beginning for an industry hit hard by a global price war followed by the pandemic. Rystad Energy, an analytics company, anticipates that nearly 250 oil and gas companies will file for bankruptcy within the next year and a half.
Even before the current downturn, methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, was being released from production sites in America’s biggest oil field at more than twice the rate previously estimated, according to a recent study based on satellite data. Some experts say that with the industry in disarray, efforts to fix leaks of methane, which pound for pound can warm the planet more than 80 times as much as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, may fall by the wayside. Low natural gas prices may lead to increases in flaring or venting, the intentional release of excess gas, the International Energy Agency said this year.
It is also likely that many companies haven’t set aside enough money, as required by law, to restore well sites to their original state. An analysis of recently bankrupt oil and gas companies’ financial statements, prepared for The New York Times, shows a funding shortfall.
The federal government estimates that there are already more than three million abandoned oil and gas wells across the United States, two million of which are unplugged, releasing the methane equivalent of the annual emissions from more than 1.5 million cars.
“They’re sitting there and they’re leaking. And they’re much leakier than a well that’s still in production and being monitored, although those leak, too,” said Robert Schuwerk, executive director for North America at Carbon Tracker. “And companies haven’t been setting aside the money, because they’d rather spend the money on drilling a new well.”
Again, the point of all this is that the gas industry is far, far from the "clean" energy choice they market themselves as and solutions to this problem are not going to come from the industry. Consumers must choose alternatives and governments and the courts must hold the industry accountable for their pollution.
The Climate Justice Alliance’s Position on Gas
CJA’s goal is to “transition from an extractive economy to one that is sustainable, regenerative, and rooted in social, economic and environmental justice.”
CJA aims to:
Shift the narrative of climate change solution efforts from a carbon-centric, carbon reductionist focus to one that is people and community-based, and rooted in principles of justice
Guide new solutions and anchor our collective efforts in the areas of planning, advocacy, organizing, and legislative action
Identifying key local and/or regional victories that prevent development of extractive energy infrastructure.
Promote a vision for an energy system that addresses climate change while challenging national and global inequality
In the case of gas, climate justice means addressing not just the methane and carbon emissions, but all of the pollution along the way. It means not pushing the problems associated with fracking off to our neighbors in Pennsylvania and Canada (and elsewhere) so that we can use gas in NY state. Climate justice means organizing in communities to fight against new infrastructure for gas while fighting for legislation that transitions us away from it entirely. It also means making sure that the most vulnerable in a population are not hurt by that transition (making sure that electrification of homes is affordable for all) and that those who do work in the fossil fuel industry have sufficient support in career retraining and job opportunities in a future green economy.
You can read more about Just Transition: a Framework for Change here.
What Local Groups are Against Gas in NY?
Rochester People’s Climate Coalition. In fact, you can sign up to join their virtual action-social this Thursday, 8/20 from 5:30-6:30. They’ll help you deliver a statement to the Public Service Commission that supports RG&E’s tentative plan to transition away from gas. While you’re on the phone with the Commission, let them know that you object to RG&E raising their rates (during a pandemic!) 15.9% over the next three years. Learn more here. RSVP here.
If you can't make it, you can still weigh in by zoom, phone, email, or mail before Aug 24th. All the info you need is here.
All of these Rochester-based groups signed the same letter we did, along with 123 other organizations across the state.
What Can the Town of Penfield Do?
1. Choose an administrator for CCA committed to 100% carbon-free electricity by default with an opt-up community solar program
The town's Energy and Environmental Advisory Committee is currently in the process of choosing an administrator for Community Choice Aggregation that they would then recommend to the Town Board. NY State does in fact have a CCA administrator committed to 100% carbon-free electricity by default for its customers, meaning no gas! Over the last year, the town board heard from a large number of residents that we want clean electricity for Penfield. We know and greatly appreciate that the EEAC prioritizes sustainability and we hope that they eventually do choose the clean energy option for Penfield this fall.
2. Adopt Stretch Energy Codes for New Construction and Remodeling
The state of NY has certain requirements for builders when it comes to energy efficiency for homes, detailed by energy codes. Having a more energy efficient home means less gas is needed to heat homes (remember: 57% of NY homes use gas to heat them). Municipalities have the option of adopting "stretch codes" and the one that NYSERDA is recommending towns consider adopting is called NYStretch Energy Code – 2020. It is written to be easily adopted by towns like ours and would make new homes 11% more efficient than those that meet the basic standards of the NYS Energy Codes.
The EEAC is already in communication with Haylee Ferrington from the Genesee Finger Lakes Regional Planning Council because they are looking into the Climate Smart Community Certification for Penfield (which we are very excited about). She can also advise the committee on NYStretch Energy Code-2020.
3. Ban gas hookups in new construction
In the coming decade, we will be retrofitting homes across the country for electric heat and hot water. Some communities have seen the writing on the wall and have already completely banned gas in new construction. Penfield wouldn’t be the first, but we would be in great company if we were to do the same as we grow our community. Berkeley, CA was the first about a year ago. Four other cities in CA followed suit: San Jose, Mountain View, Santa Rosa, and Brisbane. In December, Brookline, MA also banned gas hookups for new homes. This is a trend we'll see more of in the coming years.
What Can Individuals Do?
Al Hibner is exploring in detail what homeowners can do to eliminate gas in their homes in his blog series, “Our Big Beautiful Green All Electric Life.” But in short…
Home heating: replace gas/oil fired home heaters with heat pumps.
Hot water: They do make electric water heaters but if you are looking at this route, also take a look at installing a highly efficient geothermal system. There are options for these systems that combine home heating and hot water.
Replace gas fired stove tops with electric. A die-hard gas stove enthusiast might disagree, but in my opinion, our induction cook top performs just as well as our old gas stove and water boils ridiculously fast!
Replace other gas-powered appliances with energy star electric options.
Sustainable Homes Rochester is a fantastic resource for more information on this topic.
I learned a great deal in researching this article and I find myself highly motivated to work on reducing, hopefully eliminating my family’s use of gas in the coming years. But I know that personal choices are not going to have a significant impact here. We need to ask our town officials to choose clean electricity for our tens of thousands of residents (now that's an impact!), adopt Stretch energy codes, and ban gas hookups for new construction. When given an opportunity to comment on the current RG&E Rate Case, we need to tell them that we absolutely support their plans to end new infrastructure projects. At the state and federal levels, we must fight for legislation that uses both carrots (incentives) and sticks (regulations) to move away from all forms of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, but we must also be very thoughtful about how those changes will impact every population and prioritize a just transition.
I’m deeply worried about the uncapped and abandoned wells that are super emitters of methane and I am absolutely disgusted that companies can not only get away with this behavior but reward their leaders with obscene amounts of money despite their utter failures. We need strong federal oversight of this industry and funding for independent groups who can determine exactly how much methane we’re emitting.
Finally, I’m grateful to the activists who worked so hard to prevent hydraulic fracking in NY State – especially those who live in Penfield and are now setting their sights on clean electricity through Community Choice Aggregation. Thank you for all you’ve done and are continuing to do!
Please note: I tried to make sure that any claims I made or figures I referenced are backed up by reputable sources. If I have made any errors or misrepresented anything, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org so that I can fix the problems!