Fugitive emissions and flares associated with hydraulic fracturing have been strongly linked to the sharp uptick in atmospheric methane levels over the past decade | Photo: npr.org

Does the Trojan horse burp natural gas?

Over the past couple of years, natural gas has been put forward one of the cleanest transitional fossil fuels the world needs. It can be used in two forms – as compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG) to run vehicles. But is it the right way forward for a carbon-neutral future? 

The allure

With most of the world’s largest economies struggling to cope with large-scale climate action, natural gas seems to be a less daunting alternative to more polluting fossil fuels, than renewables, which require massive investments of time and capital. Relatively, switching to natural gas can be a seamless and inexpensive affair. Let’s take the example of urban transportation in India and the pollution associated with it. While switching to electric vehicles may be the best option to circumvent the issue of vehicular pollution, it is also the most expensive and out of reach of most of the country’s population. Dedicated natural gas vehicles, however, are easier on the pockets. Not just that, conventional petrol and diesel vehicles can be retrofitted for CNG at a fraction of the cost of an electric vehicle.  

According to the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, natural gas has the ability to emit between 50-60% less CO2 than coal. In vehicles, it can burn between 15% and 20% less greenhouse gases compared to petrol.

Still too dirty

While natural gas is more cost-effective and a cleaner alternative to petrol and diesel, there are some major problems that cannot be overlooked. One, it is a short-term solution given the competition from renewables. In the long run, and even currently, in fact, the cost of renewables such as wind and solar, has dropped considerably and will continue to do so. A recent report took the example of the US, which has expanded its use of natural gas to generate electricity considerable over the past 20 years. But, the report pointed out, the falling costs of renewable energy could make it a cheaper alternative to most gas-powered power plants in the US in just 16 years.

The other problem with the use of natural gas is its methane emissions – primarily from leaks. In the US, for example, ‘fugitive emissions’ from the oil and gas industry have been calculated to be an estimated 13 million metric tonnes a year. This translates into a $2 billion in lost revenue. Globally, the value of leaking gas is estimated to be around $30 billion. This number is nothing compared to the leaks’ climate implications, of course. Although the US natural gas coalition has reported a 41% decrease in methane intensity, the figures are still alarming, primarily because methane can trap 86 times as much heat as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. The only saving grace, in methane’s case, is that it only lasts in the atmosphere for around 10 years, which means the levels can be reduced considerable with fast action, unlike carbon dioxide.

Methane leaks have been especially reported during the controversial process of fracking, which brings us to the third issue with the use of natural gas. In fact, scientists have identified fracking in the US and Canada as the main culprit for the alarming rise in methane levels in Earth’s atmosphere over the past decade. A 2015 study at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory found that methane levels in the atmosphere rose dramatically in the years since 2006 after being unchanged for several years before that. The sharp uptick correlates too neatly with the advent of fracking for it to be a simple coincidence. Scientists believe up to 80 per cent of the 25 million additional tonnes of methane per year observed since 2006 could be directly linked to fracking.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process to extract natural gas from shale rock formations that are usually found deep underground. The process involves pumping water, chemicals and sand underground at high pressure in order to fracture the shale so that the gas trapped within is released and collected at the surface. It has been deemed controversial not just because of methane leaks, but also because of its effects above ground. For example, a review by the UK’s Oil and Gas Authority found that it was impossible to predict “the probability or magnitude of earthquakes” caused by fracking. This prompted the country’s government to ban fracking at the beginning of this month. Another concern is the wastewater production and the ability of fracking to dangerously deplete water levels in local water bodies. There has been a similar concern in India as well, with there have been calls to follow the UK in banning fracking. A global study published last year found that fracking is likely to increase pressure on water resources in some of the shale reservoirs in India located in water-stressed and groundwater-depleted areas. This is cause for concern as it could threaten the growth of crops in certain parts of India.

Fueling the future?

Natural gas production has risen quickly in the past two decades, especially in the US. The country has especially been pushing for natural gas as a viable and economic alternative to conventional fossil fuels at various climate forums, for example at the COP24 in Katowice, Poland held last year. There is no indication, as of now, that this year’s summit will be any different.

But with falling costs, renewables such as solar and wind, are giving fossil fuel lobbyists a run for their money. One way, according to experts, to stay ahead in the competition would be by lowering natural gas production costs to match the falling costs of renewables and also increasing production efficiency. Another would be to become the competition instead of joining it. In other words, turn the methane emissions into renewable energy. Countries seem to be more willing to switch to natural gas than solar or wind.

India, for example, is as focused on electric mobility as it is on alternative fuels. Pravin Agarwal, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Heavy Industries & Public Enterprises, recently said, “While we are aggressively pushing electric vehicles, I think there is a need to look at alternate technologies in order to curb the burgeoning oil import bill at the earliest. We want to promote other cleaner technologies simultaneously.” He emphasised on the use of low carbon fuels such as CNG to achieve India’s goal of becoming carbon neutral. In a bid to boost domestic output, the Indian government is also set to lift price restrictions on all locally produced natural gas. Gujarat seems to be leading the way with the recently announced ‘CNG Sahbagi Yojana’, which promises 300 CNG stations in the two years in a bid to solve the issue of long queues.

Foreign firms are also bullish on India’s natural gas markets. With a deal with Adani’s gas distribution business in the bag, Patrick Pouyanné, chairman and CEO of Total, said in a statement that the natural gas market in India will see “strong growth”, which will come primarily from the country’s burgeoning middle class. So what is the future of natural gas? According to estimates, global gas demand is still on the rise. Wind, solar and electric power is still an expensive alternative to fossil fuels. Which means natural gas is still in the game, for now.

But are short-term alternatives what we should be hedging our bets on? There is no doubt natural gas is a cleaner alternative to coal, petrol and diesel. But it still emits methane. Countries need to remember that ‘cleaner’ doesn’t mean ‘clean’. So while natural gas maybe an easier transitional fuel to achieve carbon neutrality, renewable energy has to be the eventual goal to save this planet.