Climate change and natural gas - protecting people and the planet

Peter Edidin

“No one should have to trade their right to clean air and clean water in exchange for cheap energy,” said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund, on Oct 22. He was discussing natural gas development at Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY, as part of the “Outside Voices” speaker series established by the Cornell-Atkinson Center for a sustainable Future. 

In his speech, “Climate Change and Natural Gas – Protecting People and the Planet,” Krupp talked about the most effective ways to safeguard ecosystems and communities from the unacceptable impacts of natural gas development. He also delved into the crucial issue of reducing methane leakage from the natural gas system, which is urgently needed to reduce the climate impacts of natural gas production and see to it that natural gas delivers a climate benefit compared to other fossil fuels. Natural gas “can’t get us to where we need to go,” he said. “Nothing I know of can substitute for zero-carbon sources like conservation, energy efficiency, wind and solar.”  

The full text of Fred’s speech:

When did it hit you?

When did you first realize that we are altering the composition of the atmosphere, spewing CO2 and other GHG pollution, threatening life on earth?

For me, it was 40 years ago this fall, when I attended a lecture by George Woodwell, then of Brookhaven national lab. He projected a graph onto the screen—a line that showed CO2 concentrations over Hawaii’s Mana Loa Volcano going up. 

Four decades later and now that line, those concentrations have just kept rising…  

And what was then a theoretical danger is now a reality. The evidence is all around us…

  • Drought in the farm belt,
  • The worst wildfires anyone in the West has ever seen,
  • Ferocious storms — like Hurricane Sandy — supercharged by warmer seas.

We are altering the balance of nature in ways that are truly dangerous. 

The time to fundamentally change course is long overdue.

So with all that at stake, I want to talk with you today about solutions, in a practical, specific way by focusing on three issues related to natural gas.

  • First, I want to talk about local environmental questions – how to protect communities from unacceptable impacts of natural gas development;
  • Second, I want to talk about global imperatives, the need to reduce the rate at which methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, leaks out of natural gas wells and pipelines and into our atmosphere…
  • And third, I want to talk about whether replacing coal with natural gas can be good for our environment in the short term, while we advance policies and regulations that accelerate the transition to low-carbon energy sources.

Let me also say, at the outset, that while my subject today is natural gas, I don’t want anyone here today to come away with the impression that I see it as the climate solution for the United States.   Ifdone right, natural gas can play a role in slowing climate change and transitioning to a truly clean energy economy – but on its own it can’t get us where we need to go.

Nothing I know of can substitute for zero carbon sources like conservation, energy efficiency, wind and solar.

Just last year, all renewable energy sources combined accounted for more than half of new installations and, in total, now account for 12% of U.S. electricity generation.

We must and will make this percentage grow.

Part 1: On local impacts

The role of natural gas is a matter of national debate –a debate often centered here at Cornell – and I want to recognize professors Tony Ingraffea and Bob Howarth, who played a key role in bringing the methane issue to the attention of the public. 

Any discussion of natural gas must begin with its impact on people and their communities. 

The fact is, people living with poorly regulated natural gas development have seen unacceptable impacts to their air, water, and landscapes. 

When I was serving on the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board for natural gas, a woman in Washington Pennsylvania told our committee that she had been forced out of her home by the noxious fumes from a nearby well. Her son was living with friends so he could go to school, and she was temporarily living out of her car. 

So at EDF we have fought to protect air and groundwater. We fought for the right of people in these communities to know exactly what chemicals are being pumped into the ground, and what’s coming back up. And more than 20 states now require some disclosure, including Texas, Colorado, Wyoming and Pennsylvania. 

We’ve got plenty more to do. 

Two years ago the Advisory Board I served on called for regulations to protect the ground water, surface water, and air quality, and minimize the impacts of oil and gas development.

Since then, some companies have taken action to clean up their drilling practices. Some have even come out for sensible regulation, because they know there are thousands of companies drilling wells, and producers who cut corners put the entire industry’s license to operate at risk. Regulation and enforcement is the only way to hold everyone accountable. 

We’ve won some important battles. Texas recently overhauled its outdated well construction requirements, adopting an array of leading practices to ensure wells are safely constructed and operated.   The changes included several dozen ideas also contained in a model regulatory framework developed by EDF and Southwestern Energy. These new regulations were hailed by the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. And in Wyoming, we partnered with local environmental groups to successfully advocate for new measures to reduce air pollution. 

We’re proud of this progress. But there still isn’t even one state that protects public health and the environment in ways I consider adequate. Much more work needs to be done. So it’s disappointing that some companies that publicly claim to support tough regulations are either MIA or opposed when improvements are on the table. 

The bottom line is that we must protect individuals and families who are being harmed by this development. No one should have to trade their right to clean air and water in exchange for cheap energy. 

At EDF, we have defended the right of local communities to exercise their traditional zoning prerogatives over this intensive industrial activity. In Pennsylvania, we joined with local governments and other environmental groups to fight a state law that stripped local communities of those rights, and so far we’ve won. 

And we know there are environmentally sensitive places where natural gas development should simply not take place. States must use the powers they have to ensure those areas are protected. 

At the same time, we must also recognize that many places are embracing gas development – and we need to fight to protect the people who live and work in those places, too. 

Whatever your position on natural gas, the reality is that technology and market forces are driving a radical expansion in its use. 

Between 2007 and 2011, the production of shale gas in the United States increased an average of 44% per year. 

Overall, from 2007 to 2011, annual domestic natural gas production increased by four trillion cubic feet – 

To more than 28 trillion – 

Driving annual coal use down by almost 115 million tons… 

The genie, in other words, is out of the bottle. 

I realize that talking about natural gas development and the regulation of it makes some people uncomfortable. 

They see the negative side of the processes – and view a detour into natural gas as delaying our transition to renewable energy. 

I share this concern but disagree with the notion that we can somehow “stop” natural gas development everywhere…  

To me, it’s like sex education… 

Some people are afraid that teaching teenagers about contraception encourages them to have sex. 

Well, I’m of the view that it’s going to happen anyway, so let’s make sure they do it safely. And I don’t think “abstinence only” is a realistic approach for natural gas either. 

Or consider this practical reality – two-thirds of natural gas produced in the US is not even used to generate electricity… 

It’s used to heat homes and businesses, and to produce fertilizer and chemical feedstocks. So even if we closed down every natural gas power plant, we’d still being using 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas every year. 

All of which means that, even as we advance policies to speed the adoption of clean energy, we have an absolute obligation to make sure natural gas is produced in as clean and climate-safe a manner as possible. 

Part 2: Global impacts

As you probably know, methane, the main component of natural gas, is far more damaging to our climate than carbon dioxide in the short term. 

In fact, in its most recent Assessment Report, the IPCC increased its estimate of the climate impact of methane – saying it is 34 times more powerful than CO2 as a heat-trapping gas over 100-years and 84 times more powerful over a 20-year period. 

That means that even relatively small leaks are extremely damaging. 

So what needs to be done? 

Our first urgent task is to find out how much is leaking and where it’s coming from, so we can stop it. 

That’s why EDF joined with the University of Texas and over 90 academics, research institutions and companies to undertake 16 studies of methane emissions across the supply chain. As you may have heard, the first of these studies was released mid-September.  It focused on production – measuring emissions that occur during the extraction of natural gas using hydraulic fracturing. This study is important because it’s the first to put forth empirical data for some activities associated with newer production methods. 

We know some don’t like the idea of environmentalists working with industry on these problems, but industry involvement gave us access to their facilities, which was critical. 

All partners agreed, in a binding contract, that the academic scientists would carry out the study with no interference from the companies or advocates – and that the results would be peer reviewed. The scientists drew up the criteria for well sites to be studied, and the companies made available all sites that met the criteria.  

There was no cherry picking. 

As I said, we’ve only completed the first study. It used “bottom up” methods to directly measure methane emissions, other studies will use “top down” flyover methods and other innovative approaches.   And we’ll move from production to the rest of the natural gas system – processing plants, pipelines, storage facilities, and distribution to the consumer.

But the results of the first production study are already proving extremely valuable. 

Let me say a word about what this study does and does not say. 

First and foremost, it suggests new EPA regulations on green completions work extremely well.

– These capture the methane that comes back up the well at the end of the hydraulic fracturing process… 

I’m sure that wasn’t welcome news to many of the less responsible companies in the industry, or those who reflexively oppose EPA regulations. 

The study showed that properly designed wells release less than 1/2% of their gas, which is in the range we need to achieve for natural gas to help, not hurt, in our fight against climate change when displacing coal. 

What the study does not say – as the American Petroleum Institute and some politicians have claimed — is that the EPA regulations were unnecessary or that natural gas is “good for the environment.” 

In fact, we believe it demonstrates very clearly that the regulations have been effective – and their full implementation in January of 2015 is absolutely essential… and that we need to extend those regulations to oil wells that also produce natural gas, which currently aren’t covered by the EPA rules. 

The study also found that emissions from some production activities were far higherthan previously estimated — leaky equipment, or what the industry calls fugitive methane. We need rules that require producers to control these emissions. We have the technology to do so. 

This is product leaking out—product that can be sold and used. Let’s capture those fugitives and put them to work.   

This first study also does not say anything about methane leakage in other parts of the supply chain. We know from airplane monitors that there is significant leakage elsewhere in the supply chain.   We know from the first production study that there are serious leaks there as well. Anyone who tries to claim there is no problem with methane leakage is being disingenuous – or does not have the facts. 

And there is one other misuse of these studies I’d like to address. Data collection is extremely important. But it cannot be an excuse for inaction. 

We don’t need to wait to fully implement the recommendations of the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board for natural gas, chaired by MIT’s John Deutch. We should take those necessary steps immediately. 

Part 3: Can gas be a net positive and its impact on renewables

Finally, having described the very serious questions around the issues of natural gas, I want to talk for a few minutes about its promise, as well. 

If natural gas is extracted and used responsibly, it produces about half the amount of greenhouse gas emissions of coal, and is cleaner in other ways, too. 

It has already begun to replace coal in many areas. 

Companies who might have built coal plants in the past are using existing natural gas plants instead.  

If I had told you ten years ago that I had a plan that would compel utilities like Southern Company and AEP to drop plans to build coal plants and replace them with facilities that produce half as much greenhouse gas emissions, you’d have asked me how much I’ve been smoking. 

In fact, I remember about five years ago, EDF engaged in an epic battle to stop the Texas utility TXU from building 8 new coal plants. 

At the start, it was an uphill fight that many thought we’d certainly lose. With activism from the streets to the boardrooms, we prevailed. But what’s really amazing is how much the world has shifted: No utility would dream of trying to build 8 new coal plants in the United States today. 

I know there are those who believe natural gas is an environmentally irresponsible diversion on the path to renewable energy. 

But for now, natural gas is a part of our current energy mix.  

There is major climate damage at stake if we don’t get methane emissions under control.  In addition to replacing coal, gas can help support the deployment of more wind and solar. Modern natural gas turbines fire up quickly, so they can step in when the wind suddenly dies or clouds interfere with peak solar performance. 

Whether you believe a zero-carbon future is attainable in 10, 20 or 30 years, we know it will not happen overnight.  

Which means it is our moral obligation to be clear-eyed and realistic about how we handle that transition. 

Congress will not soon repeat, much less expand, the large government investment in clean energy we saw at the beginning of the Obama Administration. 

They have shown no willingness to enact a market signal like a cap and trade program or a carbon tax in the near future. 

That is something we must continue to fight for, but in the meantime, we need to do everything we can to reduce emissions today – and that includes making natural gas development as climate-safe as possible. Because as we speak, gas wells are being drilled, methane is being leaked, and pollution is collecting in our atmosphere. 

At EDF, we are working for that clean energy future. Our fastest growing program is focused on Clean Energy — replacing a century-old U.S. electricity system that is wasteful, expensive, and polluting. 

Nearly $2 trillion will be invested in the U.S. electric grid over the next 20 years. That is opening a new window of opportunity for clean energy —and the potential for a technological revolution much like the one we have seen with modern-day telecommunications. We’re seeing the beginning of it with a range of innovations that are fostering a new, modern, intelligent energy system. One that is as interactive as the Internet and as simple to use as an iPad: open to clean technologies, renewables, efficiency and customer choice.

Make no mistake:  our future lies with solar, wind, energy efficiency and other forms of low-carbon energy sources. I do not want to see more natural gas infrastructure built out. 

I want to see clean energy infrastructure. 

Let me also say one thing about the economics and the politics of natural gas. 

As environmentalists, our priority is always human health and the natural world. 

But we cannot ignore the fact that the expansion of natural gas is, perhaps, the most positive development for American manufacturing since World War Two. 

We will insist on strong standards to protect our environment. 

But we cannot forget about the union members and other workers who are seeing jobs return to our cities and factories. 

Many people are struggling to get by, desperate for good jobs… 

We have proclaimed our urgency to replace dirty coal and reduce emissions… 

So if properly regulated natural gas can help do both, how do we explain rigid opposition? 

With so much economic insecurity around us, we cannot just be the community of no

Having said that, let me be just as clear about this: I know the activists who oppose fracking are acting in good faith. And they’re making an incredibly valuable contribution to the debate. 

They have raised the public consciousness about the negative side of this new technology – defending communities, protecting clean water, and standing up to powerful and well-funded corporations. 

It is in all of our interest that they keep up the pressure for transparency and local control and strict environmental standards. 

And as they do that, we will keep up the fight for the most responsible approach to natural gas. 

My hope is that together – each fighting in our own way – we can move this country toward healthier communities and a safer climate for us and our children.