President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and scientists have touted natural gas as a bridge fuel away from less clean-burning coal-fired power plants.
Still, a Thursday House Science subcommittee hearing on methane emissions from natural gas systems got tripped up by a seemingly simple question: Is natural gas really cleaner than coal, or not?
Natural gas releases significantly less carbon dioxide than coal when burned at a power plant. But the Environmental Protection Agency, industry leaders, and environmental advocates have struggled to determine how much methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, is released during the production process, before it gets to the power plant.
Obama has put methane front and center as part of his end-of-term agenda. In March, he and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to cut methane emissions in the U.S. and Canada by 40 percent to 45 percent by 2025. The EPA has also started collecting data on methane emissions in preparation for an eventual rule regulating existing sources in the oil and gas industry.
At the hearing, Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, pointed to a 2013 study conducted by Environmental Defense Fund scientists that discusses the negating effects of methane. The study indicates that natural gas is in fact cleaner than coal in terms of greenhouse gases, but only as long as no more than 2.7 percent of methane is emitted during the production and transportation process. Any more than that, and natural gas’s low rate of carbon emissions is negated.
Fortunately, the current rate of methane emissions for natural gas is “1.5 percent, maybe 1.8 percent,” Milito testified.
But Elgie Holstein, a senior director at EDF who also testified, disagreed with that premise. “The cumulative results of our scientific work show that we need to get methane emissions from this sector down at or below 1 percent, not 2.7,” he said.
“It’s news to me that it’s 1 percent,” Milito responded.
Holstein did not cite a specific study to bolster his claim, but he did tell the committee he would provide more information at a later date. EDF did not respond to Morning Consult’s requests for more information on Thursday afternoon.
The exchange highlights widespread confusion about natural gas’s environmental strengths and weaknesses. There is uncertainty about how much methane is currently floating into the atmosphere and whether methane emissions are increasing or decreasing.
EPA’s data on methane emissions have fluctuated as the agency gathers more information about natural gas systems. The agency’s estimate of 2013 methane emissions from natural gas systems increased 11.6 percent between its 2015 and 2016 reports on greenhouse gas emissions. The trajectory of methane emissions also switched from a slight decrease to a slight increase in recent years.
The confusion over methane leak rates at the hearing wasn’t the only instance in which attendees couldn’t agree on the facts regarding emissions. Subcommittee Chairman Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) said in his opening statement that “the U.S. energy industry contributes little to the overall burden of global fossil fuel emissions,” citing a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, responded that “the NOAA study did not separate out U.S. from global emissions. So we’re, just for the record, going to be following up with NOAA and putting any correcting information in the record.”
From there, the hearing delved into a broader point of contention, as Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) cast doubt on whether climate change is occurring. He referenced satellite data indicating that there has been a “pause” in global warming for the past 18 years. (Surface temperatures, rather than satellite data, indicate 2016 will be the hottest year on record, surpassing the next hottest year of 2015.)
Palmer then speculated that his doubt about climate change would have negative consequences on him personally. “That’s probably, Mr. Chairman, going to make me subject to some kind of government retribution or a trial or something, I don’t know,” he said.