Methane pollution makes “natural” gas as bad as coal for climate

August 15, 2023


Gas Leaks


The fossil fuel industry has spent decades telling the public that “natural” gas is the “cleanest” fossil fuel. A new study confirms that that was a lie all along — when methane pollution is taken into account, gas’s contribution to worsening heat waves is likely just as bad as coal power!

Gas is mostly methane — an extremely potent greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere more than 80 times as much as carbon dioxide. And the oil and gas industry leaks (or purposefully releases) vast amounts of methane — from fracking fields, gas pipelines, storage or export facilities, or even the gas stove in your home.

Recently, researchers at Brown University and Rocky Mountain Institute tallied up all this methane and came to the same conclusion as researchers in previous studies: all it takes is a little bit of methane pollution being released into the atmosphere to make “natural” gas as bad as coal for the climate.

Right now, the gas industry essentially self-reports how much methane is released into the atmosphere, and it’s got lots of reasons to minimize the extent of the problem. This leads to official government estimates that significantly underestimate the full climate impact of methane gas. 

The Environmental Protection Agency uses industry-supplied data to estimate that 1.4% of gas leaks into the atmosphere before it gets to the end user. But real life measurements show leakage rates much much higher than that:

  • A study from the Boston area found that up to 3.3% of methane leaks from the gas system — two to three times higher than the state’s estimates.
  • Studies of methane leaks from the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, the second largest source of gas in the country, have documented alarming levels of methane pollution — anywhere from 3.7% to upwards of 9%.
  • It’s not just fracking wells and pipelines: monitors have found huge amounts of methane leaking from Gulf Coast gas export facilities that are being pitched by the industry as “clean” energy. In 2022, Louisiana’s Calcasieu Pass export facility exceeded its hourly pollution limits more than 100 times.
  • Gas utilities that serve peoples’ homes are also a major source of pollution. Richmond Gas Works, owned by the city of Richmond, VA, leaked a shocking 14% of all its methane gas over the course of a month in 2022.

The recent Brown University study found that a 2-3% leakage rate likely makes gas-fired power bad or worse than most coal power plants. Mounting evidence shows that the gas system is leaking far more than that, worsening climate change, droughts, and heat waves.

Though the gas industry likes to pat itself on the back for plugging a few holes in its system, methane leaks are unavoidable when producing, transporting, and burning methane gas. The only real solution to the problem is to reduce our dependence on methane gas and transition to clean electricity.

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