Air & Water Quality
Natural gas: a bridge fuel that can help improve our air quality
The economic benefits of natural gas production in the Barnett Shale are now obvious to North Texans – tens of thousands of new jobs, along with signing bonuses and monthly royalty checks to thousands of property owners who’ve leased their mineral rights.
But another plus of natural gas production has yet to be appreciated, according to the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council’s executive director, Ed Ireland, Ph.D.
As the cleanest-burning hydrocarbon, natural gas can help improve air quality by reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere – if it is used more for both electrical generation and transportation.
This fact is extremely important because it is clear that environmental issues are going to be the driving force behind oil and gas regulation for the foreseeable future. As an opening salvo, two environmental groups, the San Juan Citizens Alliance of Colorado and WildEarth Guardians of New Mexico, filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Environmental Protection Agency recently, citing the EPA’s “failure to protect communities and the climate from air pollution emitted nationwide by oil and gas drilling."
According to the lawsuit, under the Clean Air Act the EPA is required to review and update clean air regulations every eight years. The suit alleges that the EPA has failed to update two sets of clean air regulations originally issued in 1985 and 1999, and has failed altogether to issue a required third set of regulations. “The result is a number of oil and gas operations and pollutants spewed by those operations are not limited in any way,” the lawsuit states.
Whatever the outcome of this and future lawsuits, stricter regulations will result in increasing the cost of natural gas production, which ultimately will reduce production, especially in “unconventional” plays such as the Barnett Shale where production costs are higher. Unfortunately, this result is at cross-purposes with the goal of reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality, because natural gas is the cleanest burning hydrocarbon.
A few “factoids” about clean burning natural gas. It is mostly methane, which has only one carbon atom with four hydrogen atoms. This compares to gasoline which has eight carbon atoms and 18 hydrogen atoms and diesel which as 14 carbon atoms and 30 hydrogen atoms. As a result, burning natural gas produces less NOx, soot and greenhouse gases than other petroleum fuels.
There is widespread support for moving the economy into a new era based on renewable and clean sources of energy. But the reality is that we will be using hydrocarbons for decades to come while these new technologies and infrastructure are being developed. Therefore it only makes sense to promote natural gas as a bridge fuel to achieve these environmental goals.
One of the key ways natural gas improves air quality is when it is used to produce electricity instead of coal. Clean coal technology offers the potential for cleaner electrical generation but is not a fully developed technology. Natural gas-fired electrical plants have been used for decades and are the cleanest source of power for electrical generation next to nuclear.
There are many other avenues for using natural gas to improve air quality fairly quickly that are finally getting more attention, such as switching fleet cars and trucks to natural gas. Natural gas is very well suited for use by city buses, garbage trucks, and delivery trucks. Such vehicles run fixed routes and return every evening to storage areas where natural gas fueling stations can be installed.
Natural gas vehicles (NGVs) are proven and reliable. Over eight million NGVs are in use worldwide and the number is rapidly increasing. About 110,000 NGVs operate on U.S. roads, including 11,000 transit buses, 2,000 refuse trucks, 3,000 school buses and 12-14,000 vehicles in shuttle and a wide variety of truck applications.
NGVs are also very quiet and therefore reduce noise pollution – in fact the decibel level of NGVs is 80-90% less than their diesel counterparts. If you have ever been behind a Fort Worth city bus, you wonder if it is even running. Finally, life-cycle costs are lower for NGVs than for gasoline and diesel vehicles. Not only does fuel cost less, but maintenance costs are also lower compared to gasoline and diesel vehicles.
The bottom line is that natural gas from the Barnett Shale and other natural gas fields in the U.S. should be a key element of our environmental policies, especially at a time when we need to keep our economies healthy close to home.
Ed Ireland is executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, a community resource that provides information to the public about gas drilling and production in the Barnett Shale region. Its intention is to provide fact-based information about urban drilling from sources such as industry, government, organizations and institutions of higher education. The Council is a consortium of 11 of the leading energy companies operating in the Barnett Shale.