Professor Anthony Ingraffea, who was named one of Time Magazine's “People Who Mattered” for his 2011 scientific paper that warned of the risks of natural gas fracking and appears in Gasland 2 discussing his research, has penned a powerful op-ed in The New York Times speaking out against the danger posed by the ongoing natural gas boom. In the piece, Ingraffea criticizes President Obama's insistence that natural gas is a necessary bridge fuel to get us off of coal, instead calling it a "gangplank to more warming."
Burning less coal is absolutely necessary, but the crux of the problem with natural gas is that it releases methane into the atmosphere, which behaves differently in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, trapping more heat and therefore exacerbating the warming we must stop.
Ingraffea explains why methane leaks are such a problem:
A 2011 study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that unless leaks can be kept below 2 percent, gas lacks any climate advantage over coal. And a study released this May by Climate Central, a group of scientists and journalists studying climate change, concluded that the 50 percent climate advantage of natural gas over coal is unlikely to be achieved over the next three to four decades. Unfortunately, we don’t have that long to address climate change — the next two decades are crucial.
So, we need to keep methane leaks below 2 percent for natural gas to be better for slowing climate change than coal. How much is currently leaking? As much as 17 percent, according to NOAA measurements cited by Ingraffea.
At a minimum, this means that much stricter regulations and improved technology to decrease methane leaks is necessary to make natural gas even close to being a safer alternative to coal.
However, the NASA photo above captures the scale of this problem. So much methane is currently being leaked into the atmosphere that we can see it from space. In North Dakota, where there is an oil boom underway, excess natural gas that is released in the drilling process is burned or "flared". It is estimated that 100 million cubic feet of natural gas is flared every day. This is enough to power half a million homes.
We should still work to minimize natural gas flaring, but Ingraffea concludes his op-ed describing a smarter, safer and cleaner path forward:
We have renewable wind, water, solar and energy-efficiency technology options now. We can scale these quickly and affordably, creating economic growth, jobs and a truly clean energy future to address climate change. Political will is the missing ingredient. Meaningful carbon reduction is impossible so long as the fossil fuel industry is allowed so much influence over our energy policies and regulatory agencies. Policy makers need to listen to the voices of independent scientists while there is still time.