Methane can be found all over the world. It is the primary ingredient in natural gas, the fossil fuel drawn from the Earth, and in renewable natural gas, which is produced at landfills and biodigesters. It has many uses for heating, for generating electricity, and as a chemical feed stock. But it is a powerful greenhouse gas, causing climate change, and many scientists believe that replacing coal with natural gas as a fuel is not a significant improvement.
To understand the problem with natural gas as a fuel, we should think about how it is extracted, transported, and used. Much of our natural gas comes from fracking, fracturing rock formations so gas bound inside them will be released.
While the gas companies claim that fracking is safe, there are a number of reasons for concern. Fracking is achieved by pumping chemicals underground, and some of these chemicals are toxic. Since fracking involves breaking up rock, it is conceivable that it would release methane and fracking chemicals through cracks that are opened to the surface. Disturbing images of continuous fires lit on the surface of running water cannot be easily explained as a natural effect of, for example, anaerobic action.
There are other ways that methane can be leaked at extraction sites. Scientists have been able to demonstrate that the amount of methane in the atmosphere is significantly greater at the wells than it is elsewhere. Somehow, though the industry does not want to admit it, the gas is getting out.
Once the gas is extracted, it has to be transported, usually through pipes at high pressure. These pipes can be hundreds of miles long, and pressures can be quite high, so leaks occur. Even at low pressure, there are leaks. One survey of Boston found over 2,000 of them detectable by equipment in a car. A careful check on this test found even more.
Methane is dangerous not only for the climate, but because it can explode. Gas explosions and fires cause by leaking methane happen regularly in the United States. The fires can be serious enough that entire neighborhoods might burn. Last year there was a series of over 70 explosions and fires in houses in one part of Massachusetts. An explosion in 2010 burned down 35 houses in San Bruno, California. These are just notable examples of events that come about every few months.
The Trump administration has been pushing natural gas, because it offers jobs and keeps gas prices down. One result of this is that it is a low-cost fuel, and a lot of people are employed. A problem is that the companies doing the fracking have financial difficulties because the price of their product is low. In fact, their problems are so great that a former chief executive of one of the largest fracking companies told an audience at a petrochemicals conference that fracking has been an “unmitigated disaster” for investors in shale companies (CleanTechnica – http://bit.ly/fracking-losers).
Because a glut of natural gas in the U.S. has put jobs into peril, the administration has been trying to increase exports. This is a dubious benefit, because other countries have been doing the same thing, increasing the supply. Meanwhile, demand for natural gas has gone flat worldwide.
The petrochemical industry has been looking for new markets for natural gas. Some gas producers have decided that it would be a good idea to switch from oil to gas for chemical feedstocks for the plastics industry. Of course, this has come about at just the point when countries are beginning to understand the dangers of plastics in the environment. They are in ocean gyres; they are in polar snow. They are found in our food and in the air. And they are causing environmental destruction.
Even as we stop using fossil fuels for heat and electricity, and as we give up on plastics, I believe there will continue to be reasons to use methane. With reduction in fuel and feedstock uses, however, it will not be necessary to use so much. It will also not be necessary that it be extracted from the Earth. It can be produced by landfills and biodigesters. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projected a need for over 10,000 biodigesters for farms alone. The number of biodigesters that might be put to use for waste treatment is probably much larger. And the methane that they capture, which otherwise would have gone into the environment, should be put to use.
It looks like fracking might be short-lived. We can hope.