Will Obama's 'fugitive methane' plan reduce or increase our dependence on natural gas?

von Dr. Peter Nagel

● By Prof. Nathan Phillips, Boston University ●


Like many Americans concerned with climate change and energy security, I reacted with high hopes to the President Obama’s proposal to reduce leaks of methane gas from oil and gas drilling. But on closer reading, the plan has me more worried than optimistic about the role of natural gas in our climate and energy future.


I’m probably a little more attuned to this topic than most: “methane leaks” is a term I added to my Google news feed a few years ago while researching and publishing studies that mapped over three thousand natural gas leaks in Boston and over six thousand in Washington, DC.


Methane, the primary component of natural gas, escapes into the atmosphere at wells and various points along the gas distribution network. A potent greenhouse gas, methane has 34 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.


At first glance, President Obama’s proposal looks impressive: the goal is to reduce the national methane leak rate 40% to 45% from 2012 levels by 2025. And because my colleagues and I developed new methods to detect and map leaks very precisely, I am confident we have the technology to find and fix methane leaks across the entire natural gas process chain, from hydraulic fracturing well pads to the pipelines running under our streets and sidewalks.


However, there’s a conspicuous absence in the White House’s proposal. Before, natural gas was seen as a less-polluting alternative to coal and a “bridge” to an economy run on renewable energy. Now, that language is missing. And as in industry circles, US policymakers have dropped this language over the last couple of years.


Now President Obama suggests that his program to reduce methane leaks is justified by a long-term policy for our nation to “rely” on “abundant” natural gas for years to come ...

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