IEA Debunks Enviro Claims That Methane Leaks Are Wiping Out Natural Gas’ Climate Benefits

The International Energy Agency (IEA) posed the following question in a tweet on Monday:

The answer? Well above the current methane emission rate — particularly in the United States — according to a preview of an IEA analysis that will be featured in the annual World Energy Outlook in November.

As the following IEA graphic shows, the global warming potential of natural gas over a 20-year (GWP20) and 100-year (GW100) timeframe is still far lower than other traditional sources of energy even at leakage rates far higher than IEA’s current estimated global leakage rate of 1.7 percent.

As IEA states:

“… [T]aking into account our estimates of methane emissions from both gas and coal, on average, gas generates far fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than coal when generating heat or electricity, regardless of the timeframe considered.”

This conclusion completely debunks wild anti-fracking activist claims that methane leaks wipe out natural gas’ climate benefits.

And this news is made even better by fact that U.S. leakage rates are even lower than the 1.7 percent global average. According to the most recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, U.S. natural gas systems had a methane leakage rate of 1.2 percent in 2015 – which is 30 percent lower than global average. Additionally, U.S. oil and gas system methane emissions represent just 10.5 percent of the world’s total oil and gas methane emissions, even though we are the largest oil and natural gas producer in the world.

In fact, methane emissions from large onshore oil and natural gas operations decreased by roughly 14 million tons of CO2 equivalent between 2011 and 2016, even as natural gas production increased by over 4 trillion cubic feet per day over that same period.

EPA data also show that U.S. oil and natural gas system methane emissions have plummeted since 1990 at the same time production has skyrocketed, while numerous peer-reviewed studies show that the methane leakage rate is well below the threshold for natural gas to maintain its climate benefits.

With U.S. leading the charge in IEA’s call to limit methane leaks, IEA confirms reduction opportunities are most prevalent outside the U.S., noting that nearly half of oil and gas methane emissions come from Eurasia or Middle East. As the preview notes:

“The cost of mitigation is generally lowest in developing countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.”

IEA’s topline conclusion is that natural gas has undeniable climate benefits at current leakage rates. Indeed, the United States is already experiencing climate benefits thanks to the increased use of natural gas for electricity. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in 2015 hit their lowest level since 1993 – an incredible 21 percent drop their 2005 level, as net generation from natural gas nearly doubled from between 2005 and 2015.

IEA elaborates on the substantially greater climate benefits of natural gas relative to other fossil fuels, noting in the preview:

“The emissions from natural gas combustion are well-known and show clear advantages for gas relative to other fossil fuels. CO2 emissions (per unit of energy produced) from gas are around 40% lower than coal and around 20% lower than oil.”

Moreover, natural gas use generates much lower levels of other emissions, such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and sulfur dioxide (SO2), helping to improve air quality. As IEA notes:

“The edge of natural gas over other combustible fuels is reinforced when considering emissions of the main air pollutants, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5), sulfur oxides, mainly sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOX). These three pollutants are responsible for the most widespread impacts of air pollution, according to the WEO Special Report, Energy and Air Pollution 2016.”

Considering the climate benefits, as well as the improvements to air quality offered by natural gas, the fuel has not only become more relied on for electricity generation, but is also vital to reaching environmental and climate goals. As IEA neatly summarizes:

“The role that natural gas can play in the future of global energy is inextricably linked to its ability to help address environmental problems. With concerns about air quality and climate change looming large, natural gas offers many potential benefits if it displaces more polluting fuels. This is especially true given limits to how quickly renewable energy options can be scaled up and that cost-effective zero-carbon options can be harder to find in some parts of the energy system. The flexibility that natural gas brings to an energy system can also make it a good fit for the rise of variable renewables such as wind and solar PV.”

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