No matter how it’s produced, energy generation has negative environmental impacts. This means that rather than a definitive solution, the focus on energy is a compromise. Natural gas is an example of how cleaner air carries other costs.
Emissions and Natural Gas
When compared to coal, natural gas is the cleaner form of energy. It produces over 40 percent less carbon dioxide per million Btu equivalent. On the other hand, it is the source of nearly one-third of total methane emissions. This gas has 21 times the global warming potential as carbon dioxide.
Drilling and the Environment
Both coal and natural gas require extremely invasive procedures to extract. The processes themselves produce air pollution. Natural gas carries additional environmental risks due to water pollution and an increased chance of earthquakes.
In order to extract the trapped natural gas, a procedure called hydraulic fracturing or fracking is used to make the rock more permeable. In the process, toxic gases such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene may be released. These impacts have prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to release the first ever regulations regarding fracking and its environmental consequences.
Earthquakes and Fracking
The process of extracting natural gas is dangerous, with the potential for explosions. Another concern is that it may inadvertently cause earthquakes. A report by the U.S. Geological Survey acknowledged that this may occur, but the primary concern is the injection of wastewater into the subsurface. More serious earthquakes can result from this practice. Yet another concern exists with groundwater contamination.
The new regulations by the EPA call for owners and operators to take two courses of action to minimize the environmental impacts. They can flare or burn natural gas that cannot be transported economically at the well site. The thought is that burning natural gas is less environmentally costly than the release of methane. Alternatively, they can use emissions reduction technology called green completions to reduce the impacts.
The bigger question is the disposal of wastewater. It presents a dilemma not unlike that of nuclear energy. With the added risk of earthquakes, natural gas may not be the best solution for the country’s energy needs unless advancements in technology can minimize these potential consequences.