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New research questions climate benefits of natural gas

Methane may be leaking from some natural gas operations at roughly three times the limit deemed acceptable for the climate, suggests new research from several top-ranked U.S. scientists.

If preliminary results from a field study in the Uinta Basin of Utah are representative of the broader “fracking” industry, they could seriously undercut B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s claim that natural gas is a “clean energy.”

“We were expecting to see high methane levels,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Colm Sweeney told Nature News. “But I don’t think anybody really comprehended the true magnitude of what we would see.”

Powering western society with natural gas instead of coal has immediate benefits for the climate. That is, argued a study last April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, if the operations producing that gas aren’t leaking methane at a rate exceeding 3.2 percent.

Recent preliminary results from Utah’s Uinta Basin potentially put the rate of leakage there at 9 percent. At that rate, gas may actually accelerate dangerous global warming faster than coal.

Scientists studying in Utah are now comparing the results – a “small snapshot” – against a broader analysis of U.S. natural-gas emissions. They expect published studies to appear over the next year.

Should the Utah results prove representative, B.C. Premier Clark may find it harder to pitch the province’s fast-expanding natural gas export industry as a climate solution that will be “diminishing [China’s] dependence on coal power and other dirty sources of power.”

Clark has in fact stated that energy output from B.C.’s gas industry could soon rival Alberta’s oil sands in scale. Will its carbon footprint also be comparable?

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate change for The Tyee.

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