Methane takes a place in our lives in many different ways. We may call it natural gas, or CH4, or the clean bridge fuel to a low-carbon economy. Methane burns much cleaner than coal, releasing virtually no airborne toxins. By weight, it also has a higher energy content than coal or oil and can be converted into electricity with greater efficiency, with an end result that in the combustion process natural gas has about 1/2 of coal’s greenhouse gas emissions. And gas plants can be ramped up or down much easier than coal plants, responding to fill the gaps in renewable power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. No wonder it has gained wide favour as a transition fuel on the way to a future world powered primarily by wind, sun and waves. We would do well, however, to revisit some of our assumptions about methane’s role and impacts. It might be time to adjust our thinking and update our practices.
Most of our homes in Alberta are heated with natural gas. A few cars and buses run on it, including the newest additions to the Calgary Transit fleet. And it has a huge role in generating electricity. Enmax has four new power plants, from the 120 MW plant at Crossfield, to their 800 MW Shepard Energy Centre on the east edge of Calgary. The pick of their litter is the District Energy Centre on 9th Ave in downtown Calgary; it burns natural gas for heating City Hall and, eventually, many new buildings downtown, while the excess heat is turned into electricity. Smart, efficient cogeneration uses one fuel source while providing both heat and power, and without the need for expensive long-distance transmission.
All of Alberta’s major utility players are planning to build new gas-fired power plants, in addition to switching their existing coal burning plants to burn natural gas. ATCO Energy hopes to make the switch as early as 2020, ten years earlier than the 2030 coal phase-out dictated by the NDP government. Making the same transition by 2022, Calgary-based TransAlta Corp. expects to save $1.5 billion as they switch from coal to gas.
South of the border, in spite of growing overall demand for electricity, coal power has dropped from 53% of U.S. electricity supply in 1997 down to 30% in 2016, largely due to natural gas plants.
It’s noteworthy, however, that renewables in the past ten years have seen a steady series of advances in technology, and declines in price. Renewables supplied 37% of new generation capacity brought online in the U.S. in 2013; in 2016, only three years later, wind and solar alone brought in over 60% of new US capacity, compared to only 33% by new gas plants.
Worldwide, some 75 gigawatts of new solar PV capacity was installed in 2016; Alberta’s electricity grid, in comparison, is about 14 GW. Together, renewables and energy efficiency are nipping at the heels of the methane juggernaut. Meanwhile, the dark side of natural gas has been showing up.
With better equipment and more reliable tests, scientists and engineers have been reassessing our rates of methane leakage for several years, and the results are frightening. One new study concludes that in New Mexico’s gas and oil industry alone, the amount of escaping methane is “equivalent to the climate impact of approximately 12 coal-fired power plants”. This is in part because methane is as much as 104 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20 year timeframe, since the molecule degrades faster than the long-lasting CO2. Unless it’s produced under strict rules and practices, then our bridge fuel is more like a gangplank.
Let’s move from the air to water. Jessica Ernst, an oilpatch consultant living near Rosebud, knew that something was badly wrong when she found she could light her well water on fire. She filed a 73-page statement of claim in April of 2011 alleging that EnCana contaminated a shallow aquifer near her home, and that Alberta Environment as well as our provincial energy regulator failed to take her initial complaints seriously in either investigations or enforcement. Her suit is still proceeding through the courts, while many Alberta ranchers are facing similar impacts from an industry which has never seen a Canadian study done on the health impacts of fracking.
And finally, peeking into the ground, studies by Dr. David Eaton, geophysics professor at the U of C, and physicist Ruijia Wang at the U of A have both concluded that hydraulic fracturing caused seismic activity – small earthquakes – near Fox Creek, Alberta. And we are not alone; fracking and the associated underground disposal of wastewater has also been strongly linked to increasing frequency of earthquakes in Oklahoma.
Methane is clean burning in it’s combustion, but is often not at all clean in its production. There is a range of companies within the industry from those pushing the envelope with best practices, down to those content to do only the bare minimum. There has also been a lag between the science and the regulations, and it’s time the regulations get updated to raise the bar for everyone.
While speaking at the U of C on March 26th, 2014, Chief Economist Fatih Birol of the Paris-based International Energy Agency said, “We must do a better job managing water contamination, and methane leakage. If companies want a Golden Age for natural gas, then we must have some Golden Rules during its production.”