LASER TALK: Why Natural Gas is not a good “Transition” Fuel

Cornell University professor Robert Howarth, concluded in his May 15, 2014 paper in Energy Science and Engineering: “Using these new, best available data and a 20-year time period for comparing the warming potential of methane to carbon dioxide, the conclusion stands that both shale gas and conventional natural gas have a larger GHG than do coal or oil, for any possible use of natural gas.”[1]

Burning natural gas produces less CO2 than coal or oil for the same amount of energy produced.[2] However, if only 3.2% of natural gas escapes into the atmosphere anywhere from the ground where it is extracted to the power plant, stove, or home where it is burned, then natural gas is just as bad for the climate as coal.[3] Previous studies suggest that more than 3.2% leaks, partly due to the fact that long distance pipeline infrastructure used to transport is an average of 50 years old.[4] However, if the leakage problem can be solved natural gas could serve as a transition fuel while we convert to renewable energy.

Society needs to wean itself from the addiction to fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But to replace some fossil fuels (coal, oil) with another (natural gas) will not suffice as an approach to take on global warming. Rather, we should embrace the technologies of the 21st Century, and convert our energy systems to ones that rely on wind, solar, and water power

Germany has shifted from getting 6% of its electricity from renewables in 2000 to 25% today.[5] On one day in April, 16, 2014 7 GWh of its electricity came from solar, equivalent to 8 Japanese nuclear reactors running full tilt for 24 hours.[6] Interestingly, Germany shares a few degrees of latitude with Alaska, and is further north than any other US state except the northernmost tip of Maine.[6] Portugal also increased the percentage of its electricity sourced from renewables from 17% in 2005 [7] to 70% in the first quarter of 2013.[8]

(1) A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas. Energy Science and Engineering, May 15. 2014.  Robert W. Howarth

(2) US Energy Information Administration. “Frequently Asked Questions”. US EIA. Last updated: March 4, 2013. Last accessed: 5-16-13. URL:

(3) Ramón A. Alvarez, Stephen W. Pacala, James J. Winebrake, William L. Chameides, and Steven P. Hamburg. “Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure”. 2012. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109 (17). pps 6435-6440.

(4) Robert W. Howarth & Renee Santoro & Anthony Ingraffea. “Venting and leaking of methane from shale gas development: response to Cathles et al.”. 2012. Climatic Change. DOI 10.1007/s10584-012-0401-0. URL for pdf download:…

(5) Tara Lohan. “While Germany Is Headed for 80% Renewable Energy, We’re Getting Left in the Dust”. Nov. 21, 2012. Last accessed: 5-19-13. URL:

(6) Thomas. “Solar Power Record In Germany — 22.68 GW — Infographic”. April 16, 2013. Clean Technica. Last accessed: 5-19-13. URL:

(7) Google Earth.

(8) Elisabeth Rosenthal. “Portugal gives itself a clean-energy makeover.” August 9, 2010. The New York Times. Last accessed: 5-19-13. URL:

(8) Ryan Koronowski. “Is 70 Percent Renewable Power Possible? Portugal Just Did It For 3 Months”. April 14, 2013. Think Progress. Last accessed: 5-19-13. URL:


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