New Report Questions ‘Bridge Fuel’ Claim

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A new report concludes what has long been suspected about natural gas: leaks of methane during the extraction and transportation process eliminate any climate benefits from the supposed low-carbon fuel.

“These findings should lead policymakers to reject natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ and instead to redouble America’s efforts to repower with truly clean energy from the sun, the wind and other sources of renewable energy,” according to the report “Natural Gas and Global Warming” compiled by the environmental advocacy groups Environment America and the Toxics Action Center.

Their research analyzed studies of both fracking and traditional extraction of natural gas from mining sites across the country. Aircraft-based sampling across Colorado's Front Range found a 4.1 percent leakage rate. Production sites in southwestern Pennsylvania had a 7 percent leakage rate, according to the report.

The report also questions previous studies of leakage by the Environmental Protection Agency and the University of Texas for underestimating natural-gas leakage. The 22-page report also calls into doubt the claim that natural gas is a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy, by producing less carbon than oil and coal. Both Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker support natural gas a bridge fuel.

Although natural gas emits less carbon dioxide when burned, it generates higher carbon emissions than traditional fossil fuels when the full life cycle of natural gas is considered. Leaks during extraction, storage and transportation of natural gas release greenhouse-gas emissions that equal some 250 new coal-fired power plants, according to the report.

Methane, the primary gas in natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, and the report emphasizes the near-term impacts of methane leaks that can occur from 29 different activities and equipment that natural gas goes through during its life as a fuel.

“Temperature increases over the next few decades have the potential to push the climate past ‘tipping points’ — such as the release of methane deposits in the ocean or Arctic permafrost — that could further trigger warming,” according to the report.

Environment America suggests that the rapid growth of the wind and solar industries presents an opportunity for a rapid shift away from natural gas. The advocacy group points to the wave of new natural-gas infrastructure projects as a threat to a low-carbon energy future.

“New fracked gas infrastructure proposed across the region threatens our climate future, our health and our neighborhoods,” Ben Weilerstein of the Toxics Action Center said during a July 27 press conference outside the Statehouse.

The event was one of seven held recently across southern New England to protest natural-gas pipeline and infrastructure projects. At another press event on July 27, this one in Massachusetts at the New Bedford Harbor Walk, Sylvia Broude, executive director of Toxics Action Center, said, “For years, communities on the frontlines of proposed pipelines, power plants, compressor stations and LNG terminals have been told by the fossil-fuel lobby and politicians that gas is a low-carbon bridge to a clean energy future. Today, it’s clearer than ever that this is not the case. New fracked-gas infrastructure proposed across the region threatens our climate future, our health, and our neighborhoods. It’s time to double down on clean local renewable energy sources right here in New England."

In Rhode Island, new fossil-fuel projects include a natural-gas power plant and the expansion of a pipeline compressor station, both in Burrillville, and a liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing facility on the Providence waterfront. Rehoboth, Mass., is being asked to host a new compressor station. A new LNG storage facility is proposed for Acushnet, Mass.

“These new fracked-gas proposals on the South Coast are nothing more than a money-making scheme for the fossil-fuel industry,” said Rachel Mulroy, an organizer with the Fall River, Mass.-based Coalition for Social Justice and a board member for South Coast Neighbors United, which formed out of concerns about Spectra Energy’s LNG proposal in Acushnet.