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The Unfortunate Truth about Natural Gas

By Brad Hubbard-Nelson

First some good news: with the 2015 Paris climate accord, the nations of the world agreed to do something substantial to reduce climate disruption. It gives us reason for hope, that society can make sensible, knowledge-based investments in energy and other areas to limit greenhouse gas emissions. It won’t be easy, but we can start with the lowest hanging fruit.

At the same time, there is this uncomfortable news: several recent studies have confirmed that methane leakage to the atmosphere from extraction and transportation make natural gas not only less climate friendly than we thought, but even worse than oil or coal. In particular, the growth of unconventional natural gas (“fracking”) operations during the past decade in the U.S. have had the greatest impact. Bill McKibben summarizes the situation in an article entitled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry” in The Nation, available on-line with links to relevant sources. If, like most people, you thought that you could switch to gas for heating and do the planet a favor, please think again. .

Nobody likes it when facts change, but in this case the “facts” were a partial story: the combustion of natural gas makes less carbon-dioxide (CO2) than the other fuels, but for the environment, leakage of methane is the larger issue. Gina McCarthy, director of the EPA, which had earlier made low estimates of leakage, admits “the new data show that methane emissions are substantially higher than we previously understood“, Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas, pound for pound between 86 and 105 times worse than CO2 over 20 years. Over a century, its warming effect decreases, but in the next couple of decades humanity had better have solved the climate problem or suffer the consequences.

Where does this leave us, now that some of the low hanging fruit isn’t looking so good? Well, there are some positive developments. First, for electricity production, the Omnibus Energy bill in the state legislature promotes both off-shore wind and hydroelectric power imports, directing utilities to enter long-term contracts for both of these, which are both needed to increase low-carbon electricity. Solar power is not included in this bill, nevertheless utilities and homeowners are still investing in solar panels as prices drop and incentives remain.

On the home-heating front, heat pump technology offers a promising alternative. Heat pumps use electricity to move heat into a building much more efficiently than generating it from scratch. There are two basic types: ground-source “geothermal” heat pumps extract heat from below ground, and are the highest efficiency option which can be cost effective for new construction; and air-source heat pumps, which are more economical for replacing or augmenting an existing heating system. Recent cold climate air-source heat pumps work effectively with outdoor temperatures down to below -5F. Many can use existing duct work, and all can cool in summer as well as heat in winter. Financial incentives are available, in the form of federal, state and CMLP rebates, some of which expire at the end of June. For more information on these products and incentives, please visit www.concordcan.org/greenaction. Also, heat pump water heaters now available are twice as efficient as electric water heaters, and can pay for themselves quickly.

Reducing reliance on fossil fuels is a challenge to be met head-on with informed energy choices, and thankfully there are good options. We know now that natural gas is not one of them, and we should not increase our reliance on it by building new natural gas pipelines. Instead, homeowners and builders should take the time to learn about heat pumps, solar PV and other technologies to lower our carbon impact and save money in the process.

Brad Hubbard-Nelson is a Concord resident, a member of the ConcordCAN! Steering Group, and chair of the Comprehensive Sustainable Energy Committee (CSEC).

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