The Methane Myth: Natural Gas and Its Impact on Our Carbon Footprint

Several years back, while serving as sole reporter for a small community paper on Prince Edward Island, I was handed a very troubling calendar, distributed by a provincial home heating company whose mainstay was natural gas (methane). I flipped through month after month and discovered enough half-truths or outright falsehoods in its margins to seriously mislead anyone on the role natural gas plays in global warming. This calendar claimed, in no uncertain terms, that the burning of methane was good for the planet.

My colleagues swallowed this pill rather easily while I, more aware of the nuances, choked. When I undertook to write an article explaining the true dangers of natural gas to the planet I was stopped by our advertising department. The company distributing this calendar was apparently an advertiser, and was thus exempt from scrutiny. The money they spent on whole-page ads was worth more than the gripes of a lowly reporter.

The incident never sat right with me, the claims of this calendar left unchecked, until April of this year when a similar batch of misleading methane caught my attention, this time from Alton Gas. In an update on their injunction against water protectors of the Shubenacadie River they wrote the following:

“Nova Scotia’s energy mix is changing, and natural gas plays an increasingly important role. It helps power our businesses and warms our homes – all while lowering emissions by displacing higher carbon fuels like fuel oil and coal…Safe, economical and reliable natural gas stored deep underground at Alton is a part of the solution.”

As with that old calendar, this paragraph tells only part of the story, curtailed to be comforting, but nevertheless in sore need of context. So, for the sake of old injustices, and for those of us who’ve been mislead by similar claims of environmental purity, let’s talk methane.

This molecule comes from a variety of sources, such as livestock who contribute enormously to global warming. In North America, however, where we burn natural gas for heat as well as electricity, most of our commercial methane comes from underground, liberated either as a byproduct of oil drilling, or targeted directly by fracking.

It’s important to make this distinction because, unlike releases from cattle, the natural gas we frack was previously sequestered – trapped underground in layers of hard shale which, without our meddling, would have kept it safely away from the atmosphere for the foreseeable future. It’s only in play because we dug it up, and is in this sense no better than oil.

When we burn methane, it contributes about half as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as coal for the same amount of energy; this is where low-carbon claims come from, such as those of Alton Gas. What they’ve neglected to tell you is that natural gas leaks, from drilling and fracking sites, from pipelines and transport trucks, even from the taps of homes near shattered shale. Methane leaks, and exactly how much of it reaches our atmosphere is a question companies like Alton Gas are entirely disinterested in answering, and for which I’m aware of no undisputed numbers.

When methane actually moves skyward it contributes to global warming much more than carbon dioxide, but because methane slowly breaks down (into more carbon dioxide) its exact impact changes over time. For example, over a 20 year period methane is 75 times more potent a driver of global warming than carbon dioxide, while over a 100 year period it’s only 20 times more potent. Whichever way you slice it, methane is an atmospheric catastrophe which will be with us a long time.

We need to dramatically reduce our output of greenhouse gases in the next 11 years if we want to avoid the more horrific consequences of a changing climate, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released last October. A spike of warming over the next 20 years from leaked methane cannot be afforded. Even modest releases from fracking operations in, say, Alberta, where Alton Gas’ parent company AltaGas is located, makes the methane we’re burning much dirtier than advertised.

Even if leaks didn’t happen – and they most certainly do – our mass burning of methane still contributes enormous sums of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere which cannot continue another decade, let alone another half century as Alton Gas appears capable of doing. We no longer have the time for transition fuels, even the cleanest ones.

We must decide now which sources of energy and warmth we will endorse – each resulting in wildly different futures – and we cannot make an informed decision if peddlers of natural gas continue to present an incomplete picture. Alton Gas has been opposed for the sake of the river, of the fish, of the people, but in my mind our gravest concern should be for our climatic future, after we’ve handcuffed ourselves to still more fossil fuels.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with The Weekly Press.

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