Friday, June 26, 2015

Methane: Friend or Foe?

Will fracking save us (as David Brooks and other conservative commentators are wont to say)? Certainly natural gas is 'cleaner,' isn't it? And so the infusion of cheap, clean fossil fuel, crowding out dirty coal and dirty oil, will at least buy us time, won't it? Or be the 'bridge' to a renewable energy economy many decades from now? With new research posted by the Environmental Defense Fund, the question needs a closer look.

What the EDF suggests is that leakage of methane threatens to negate most of the gains from gas conversion, in a calculus that is complicated and subject to a variety of measurements. Leaks can be controlled--at considerable expense--but without those controls the leakage is somewhat rampant, with no strong economic incentive to reduce it.
Obama's EPA is entering the list with new rules, but these will pertain only to new wells, and lead to reductions of 40-45% of current natural gas emissions. If natural gas is to play the role envisioned for it in the next several decades, a more rigorous approach to controlling methane leaks will be needed. And the EDF's round-up of research projects suggests that this could indeed happen ... subject as always to political will, and threatened by the lobbying power of hugely wealthy producers.

Meanwhile Bill McKibben, in the June 29 issue of the New Yorker, points to a simpler and potentially more comprehensive solution: solar panels on houses everywhere, connecting to the grid, using new battery storage techniques, bypassing the grid altogether in remoter areas, changing the whole power dynamics of utilities companies and consumers. Feasible? Technically yes, as his article makes quite clear. Economically and politically likely? Only if the inertia and self-dealing among utilities executives and their political allies can be tamed.

Which will be easier, regulating the frackers, or winning over the utilities? Well, fortunately we don't have to choose. Both will carry us a long way toward safer ground. But only if we make our policy makers make them happen.

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