Silent But Deadly

Electricity generation supplied by natural gas-fired power plants has increased from 30% of US electricity generation in the summer of 2014 to a forecasted 37% this summer, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The amount of electricity generation coming from coal, on the other hand, will fall to an expected 30% this year. Several factors are thought to be driving these shifts, including dropping costs of natural gas as well as changing environmental regulations and supportive policies for renewable energy. Power plant operators have been significantly increasing natural gas-fired generating capacity this year, and solar and wind generating capacity are also on the rise in the electric industry. (Source:

This increasing use of natural gas in place of coal is generally considered to be a good thing, since natural gas releases lower levels of carbon emissions when burned. However, there are some concerns about the trend towards using greater amounts of natural gas. For one, the production and transportation of natural gas can sometimes release the greenhouse gas methane. Its climate warming impact is more than 80 times greater than that of carbon dioxide, according to an article by researchers Anthony J. Marchese and Daniel Zimmerle from Colorado State University. Their team’s research, along with others, suggests that current EPA estimates of methane emissions coming from oil and gas operations are too low.

Natural gas leaks can contain 85–95% methane, along with other hydrocarbons. While methane release brings up concerns about climate change, the hydrocarbons present in natural gas pose some health concerns and can degrade air quality.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Unconventional gas development can affect local and regional air quality. Some areas where drilling occurs have experienced increases in concentrations of hazardous air pollutants. […] Exposure to elevated levels of these air pollutants can lead to adverse health outcomes, including respiratory symptoms, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. One recent study found that residents living less than half a mile from unconventional gas well sites were at greater risk of health effects from air pollution from natural gas development than those living farther from the well sites.” (

Back in 2013, the research team from Colorado State University used an infrared camera to locate a methane leak at a natural gas gathering compressor station that was otherwise invisible. After the operator was made aware of the problem, he was able to fix it, resulting in a decline of the facility’s leak rate from 9.8% to 0.7%.

Unfortunately, infrared cameras (like the one mentioned above) that can be used to find methane leaks are prohibitively expensive for widespread use among natural gas workers. However, last year an international energy company called Statoil began field testing of an innovative and low-cost methane leak detection technology involving lasers that was developed by Quanta3, a Colorado-based startup.

Natural gas may soon take up an even larger percentage of electricity generation in the US. While this demonstrates progress towards using more climate-friendly renewable energy, it comes with some risks that can’t be ignored—climate warming, air pollution, and public health concerns.

In your opinion, how significant are the risks of methane emissions for the energy industry? What impacts might this have on the growth of renewable energy? DE_bug_web

  • Jenny Kirk.

    We need to make up our mind on this. The push from coal to NG as a environmentally friendly solution has been significant for the past decade or more and now it’s happening, yet fracking is a whole other subject. Solar has been a push and solar farms are popping up everywhere yet data regarding the toxic waste produced by solar cells has also been significant. Wind farms have significant rates of take on raptors and other birds protected by the MBTA and if you drive a wind farm in California, less than 25% of the machines are actually running any given day. At this point I am convinced there is no “EF” “solution” short of going back to before man created fire and we are now splitting hairs.

  • William Sawtelle.

    The ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ maybe should be the ‘We Don’t Know Enough’ factor. There is evidence that farms changing to saw grass cause changes in the micro climate that can cause problems for neighbors. The scrubbers and extra-tall smoke stacks used on coal fired power stations in the 1970’s led local farmers to increase their use of fertilizers. Almost any change has consequences, and many of them are unforseen, usually due to a lack of detailed knowledge. It isn’t until after we make the changes that we learn all of the consequences. I am concerned about the effect of large solar farms on local climate in areas that are not deserts. I don’t think it has been looked at in any detail yet. There is no ‘perfect’ solution. Every time we make a change we must be alert to the consequences that we did not anticipate.

  • Tamara T.

    This information is important to consider as we move into more truly renewable sources of energy. Natural gas is NOT a renewable source and its not a choice between gas and coal. The question this raises for me is ‘what are we doing to include all the costs in our evaluation of better energy supplies?’ The more we know, the better the solutions.


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