Science & Research
The American Energy Coalition wants consumers to know the truth about natural gas and Oilheat. This section of our site provides detailed information about the fuels and some of the issues that they raise.
Methane is the primary constituent of natural gas, comprising 95 of the content.1 It is also a greenhouse gas with 84 times the Global Warming Potential of carbon dioxide on a 20-year time horizon.2 The atmospheric concentration of methane has increased 148% since 1750, and scientists have concluded that this is primarily due to human activity.3
Methane was seen as a relatively benign substance until 1976, when Wei-Chyung Wang and colleagues at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies determined that methane in the atmosphere was actually a significant greenhouse gas.4 Methane also oxidizes in the upper atmosphere, increasing its climate change impact by another 15%.5
Gas utilities routinely tolerate leaks of raw methane, even though methane is a potent greenhouse gas. This practice is so widespread that the natural gas industry today is responsible for 18% of all methane emissions worldwide6.
If the utilities were as environmentally friendly as they claim, they would stop these leaks and protect the environment, but they do not, because they are too concerned with preventing explosions to worry about what a gas industry trainer calls "non-hazardous" leaks.7 "Our main job is not finding and fixing leaks," he wrote. "Our main job is public safety."
Leaks from gas pipelines are so commonplace that the Gas Piping Technology Committee (GPTC) has developed guidelines for what it calls "leak management." "Gas leaks are a part of our business, and it is how you manage them that depends on whether you are making sound business decisions,"8 a trainer advised operators in 2007.
This callous treatment of significant greenhouse gas emissions is hardly the work of rogue operators: It is spelled out in the GPTC guidelines. The guidelines recommends that hazardous (Grade 1) leaks be repaired immediately, while "non-hazardous" (Grade 2 and Grade 3) can be allowed to continue for six months or more.
Residents of Roslyn Heights, N.Y., got a lesson in "leak management" in 2008 and 2009. They repeatedly smelled gas in their neighborhood, so they called National Grid, but the smell persisted. Residents grew frustrated and called the Long Island newspaper Newsday after six months of National Grid's failure to resolve the problem. The utility advised a reporter that the utility was merely monitoring the leak - instead of repairing it - because it was designated "Grade 3."
The utilities cannot protect the environment from "fugitive emissions" of methane because they cannot protect their underground pipelines from damage. Contractors often strike natural gas lines with heavy equipment when they excavate. Sometimes pipelines leak immediately. Other times the damage causes slow developing leaks. The significance of natural gas leaks and releases is staggering: They comprise fully 2% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.9
The pipelines that distribute natural gas are riddled with leaks that release methane steadily to accumulate in the atmosphere and aggravate climate change. A spokesman for National Grid in Rhode Island described the leak problem in 2008: "National Grid determined that there is an unacceptable level of leaks in certain areas where cast-iron and unprotected bare-steel piping is concentrated, and the rate of occurrence of these leaks is increasing," said Susan L. Fleck, a National Grid vice president. "Specifically, the Rhode Island gas operation has averaged over 1,400 total leaks per year in its system since 2005." She went on to say that damage and deterioration associated with corrosion is accelerating.10
A burst Natural Gas pipe
Natural gas poses such a threat of explosion that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in 2001 called for mandatory use of "excess flow valves" to protect homeowners and their families. Installed on the service line that brings gas from the public main to the individual home, an excess flow valve is designed to automatically shut off the line in the event of a rupture so that gas cannot accumulate in the building.
Congress in 2006 mandated the use of excess flow valves in new gas installations, but many homes that use natural gas remain unprotected. Despite the NTSB's urgent call for this vital consumer protection measure, the gas industry has lobbied against mandatory use of excess flow valves and claimed that they unreliable and not worth the cost.11
Natural gas utilities are aggressively recruiting new customers for home heating, but they don't talk about how natural gas prices might be influenced by increased demand. The utilities could find themselves in fierce competition with competing interests for limited natural gas supplies in the years ahead.
Huge growth is expected in power generation, because 90 percent of the power plants to be built in the next 20 years will likely be fueled by natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. At the same time, utilities like Progress Energy in North Carolina intend to convert existing coal-fueled plants to natural gas, causing even more demand growth.12
At the same time, there is growing support in Congress for increased use of natural gas in transportation. U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) in July 2009 voiced their support for T. Boone Pickens' plan to promote and expand the use of natural gas-powered vehicles.
U.S News & World Report reported in March 2009 that the United States' leading natural gas supplier, Canada, is expected to start using more of its own gas at home. "That means any expansion in U.S. demand would almost certainly have to draw upon other foreign sources, which would ship it to U.S. ports as liquefied natural gas, or LNG," the magazine wrote.
The U.S. News & World Report article says that competition is fierce in the global natural gas markets. "Global consumption could increase more than twofold in coming years, and that could make for a very competitive and unreliable international market," the magazine reported. "Exporting countries will ship gas to wherever they can get the best price. And countries like Japan and South Korea, which are much more reliant upon imports than the United States, have shown a willingness to pay top dollar. Japan imports more than four times as much LNG as the United States, while South Korea imports nearly 58 percent more. 'We would be competing with everyone,' says Steve Gabriel, an expert on natural gas markets at Resources for the Future. 'If we have to get into the international market, we might have a problem.'"
Home heat customers cannot afford lengthy supply interruptions once the weather turns cold, because an unheated home can sustain serious damage from frozen water pipes. Natural gas supplies can get knocked out locally by pipeline mishaps. Supplies can also be interrupted on a larger scale when suppliers make a decision to withhold gas.
Examples of both types of interruptions can be found in the news:
- Thousands of Chicago residents lost gas service for several days in February 2002 after a gas crew broke a gas main and sparked a large fire.
- In January 2006, Russia cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine for three days in a price dispute.
- More than 6,000 homes in Arizona lost gas service during a spell of record low temperatures in January 2007 due to natural gas outages.
- Approximately 7,000 homes in Charlotte, N.C. lost gas service for up to four days in August 2008 when a gas crew accidentally disconnected part of the distribution system.
- In January 2009, Russia reduced supplies of natural gas to Europe by 20%, and at least 11 European countries struggled to keep their citizens supplied.
The world's largest reserves of natural gas are located in Russia and Iran.
To evaluate natural gas thoroughly, one must account for liquefied natural gas (LNG). LNG accounted for only 3% of the United States' gas supply as of 2003, but that share is expected to increase to 22% by 2020, according to the American Gas Association.
Natural gas is converted to LNG at specialized gasification facilities that super-cool the gas to -260° F using an energy-intensive process. It is then transported in special tankers that maintain the -260° F throughout transport. Upon arrival at its destination, LNG is offloaded and converted back into gas.
There are some important issues associated with LNG:
- A study commissioned by the LNG industry states that greenhouse gas emissions associated with processing and transportation of LNG increase the fuel's life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions by 29.2%, beyond the combustion emissions.13
- An LNG terminal creates risk. For example, an LNG leak could cause a flammable vapor cloud capable of melting steel 1,200 feet away and causing second degree burns on skin one mile away.14 "This would be bigger than any industrial fire with which we have experience," said James Fay, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There's no way to put out that kind of fire."
- Al-Qaeda reportedly has cited LNG as a desirable target. "If you take out those terminals, you could have a significant disruption [in the U.S. gas supply,]" said Rob Knake, a homeland security specialist.15
Like the oil exporting countries before them, the natural gas exporting countries have formed an international cartel. Many experts expect the cartel to help the countries establish and maintain high international prices for natural gas. The Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) is currently a loose federation that includes Russia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Libya, Indonesia and several other countries. The group is headquartered in Doha, Qatar.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told the group on December 2008, "The era of cheap energy resources, of cheap gas, is of course coming to an end."
"It's not encouraging to look at where the Earth's concentrations of natural gas lie," U.S. News & World Report wrote in March 2009. "Three countries have more than 55 percent of the world's proven reserves: Russia (25.2 percent), Iran (15.7 percent), and Qatar (14.4 percent). Other countries that have fairly substantial reserves include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, and Algeria."
Renewability is a significant differentiator between natural gas and Oilheat.
There is no renewable substitute for natural gas in widespread deployment. Research into non-fossil alternatives is in the nascent stages. Some farmers are gathering methane from cow manure, but there are no large-scale deployments. Virtually all customers who use natural gas for heating are burning only non-renewable fossil fuels.
Oilheat, on the other hand, has a renewable alternative that is already in widespread use. Commonly known as Bioheat® fuel, this alternative fuel blends traditional Oilheat with biofuel made from plants and food byproducts. ASTM International, a standards setting group, has expanded the definition of Oilheat to include Bioheat® fuel blends, and Bioheat® fuel is compatible with standard Oilheat equipment. Hundreds of Oilheat dealers already deliver Oilheat/biofuel blends, and Massachusetts has mandated the use of Bioheat® fuel in place of traditional Oilheat beginning in 2010.
Blending biofuel with traditional Oilheat yields a cleaner-burning fuel that supports American agriculture and fuel production while promoting U.S. energy independence.
One little-discussed aspect of the natural gas industry is the continuing use of methyl mercaptan, which has caused at least three fatalities. Methyl mercaptan is routinely added to natural gas to provide an odor, despite the chemical's troubled history and the fact that the Center for Disease Control's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) says its health effects are unknown.
Here is what the ATSDR Web site states. "Very little is known about the health effects of methyl mercaptan. The only information available is about a worker exposed to very high levels of this compound when he opened and emptied tanks of this compound. He developed anemia, went into a coma, and died about a month later. We do not know whether long-term exposure to low levels of methyl mercaptan can result in harmful health effects."
The agency's site also states that methyl mercaptan is used to make pesticides, plastics and jet fuel.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that methyl mercaptan exposure can cause symptoms such as irritation of the eyes, skin and respiratory tract; cough and sore throat; headache; nausea; shortness of breath; unconsciousness; pulmonary edema (delayed); CNS effects (narcosis, cyanosis, seizures); and respiratory failure.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides this description: "Methyl mercaptan depresses the central nervous system and affects the respiratory center, similar to hydrogen sulfide, producing death by respiratory paralysis. Clinical signs of exposure are eye and mucous membrane irritation, headache, dizziness, staggering gait, nausea, and vomiting. Paralysis of the locomotor muscles and pulmonary edema have also been observed."
EPA, in a 2008 report16, also described three fatalities linked to methyl mercaptan. "Acute hemolytic anemia and methemoglobinemia were present in one male laborer (53 years old) who was in a coma after handling tanks of methyl mercaptan. ... On the 28th day in the hospital the man died as the result of emboli in both pulmonary arteries.
"A 24-year-old male working in a sodium methyl sulfhydrate factory was found dead. Large quantities of methyl mercaptan were detected in his liver, kidneys, lungs, blood, urine, and in the washout solution of his trachea.
"In another incident, a 19-year-old was exposed to greater than 10,000 ppm of methyl mercaptan for a few minutes. Death ensued in 45 minutes as a result of respiratory arrest and heart failure."
The utility gas industry claims that there are plentiful deposits of gas in the United States, but 60% to 80% of the new wells being drilled require the use of a highly controversial extraction technique known as "fracking."20
Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking involves injecting water into bedrock formations at pressure that exceeds the rock strength and opens or expands fractures in the rock. The manmade fractures can extend several hundred feet into the reservoir rock. After the formation is fractured, a "propping agent" (usually sand carried by the high-viscosity additives) is pumped into the fractures to keep them from closing when the pumping pressure is released.21
Residents in areas where gas producers use fracking have been so outspoken in their complaints that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2010 launched a two-year study of the potential adverse effects. "There are concerns that hydraulic fracturing may impact ground water and surface water quality in ways that threaten human health and the environment," the EPA stated.22 The study is expected to be complete in 2012.
Scientific American described some of the concerns about fracking in its March 30, 2010 issue23: "From compressor stations emitting known human carcinogens such as benzene to the poor lining of wells after drilling that has led some water taps to literally spout flames, the full set of activities needed to produce natural gas gives rise to a panoply of potential problems," the magazine reported.
The Scientific American story highlighted some finding from Dish, Texas: "A set of seven samples collected throughout the town analyzed for a variety of air pollutants last August found that benzene was present at levels as much as 55 times higher than allowed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Similarly, xylene and carbon disulfide (neurotoxicants), along with naphthalene (a blood poison) and pyridines (potential carcinogens) all exceeded legal limits, as much as 384 times levels deemed safe."
Vanity Fair also covered the issue in June 201024, highlighting events in the town of Dimock, Pa.: "The real shock that Dimock has undergone is in the aquifer that residents rely on for their fresh water. Dimock is now known as the place where, over the past two years, people's water started turning brown and making them sick, one woman's water well spontaneously combusted, and horses and pets mysteriously began to lose their hair."
Vanity Fair reported other concerns as well: "Fracking is an energy- and resource-intensive process. Every shale-gas well that is fracked requires between three and eight million gallons of water. Fleets of trucks have to make hundreds of trips to carry the fracking fluid to and from each well site."
New research by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicates that the environmental benefits of natural gas have been overstated, according to a January 2011 article in Scientific American.25
A growing understanding of the pollution associated with the full "life cycle" of gas production is casting doubt on the assumption that gas offers a quick and easy solution to climate change, the article states. The EPA's new analysis doubles its previous estimates for the amount of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and is vented from gas wells, drastically changing the picture of the nation's emissions that the agency painted as recently as April. Calculations for some gas-field emissions jumped by several hundred percent. Methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously reported. When all these emissions are counted, gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, or perhaps even less.
Billions of cubic feet of climate-changing greenhouse gases—roughly the equivalent of the annual emissions from 35 million automobiles—seep from loose pipe valves or are vented intentionally from gas production facilities into the atmosphere each year, according to the EPA. Gas drilling emissions alone account for at least one-fifth of human-caused methane in the world's atmosphere, the World Bank estimates, and as more natural gas is drilled, the EPA expects these emissions to increase dramatically.
Scientists say the pollution gap between gas and coal could shrink even more. That's in part because the primary pollutant from natural gas, methane, is far more potent than other greenhouse gases, and scientists are still trying to understand its effect on the climate—and because it continues to be difficult to measure exactly how much methane is being emitted.
Geologists are studying a possible connection between natural gas drilling and earthquakes in Arkansas, according to a March 2011 article26 in Business Week magazine. The Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission made an emergency request that two natural gas producers, Chesapeake Energy and Clarita Operating, suspend the use of injection wells where they were disposing of wastewater from the drilling process. A six-month moratorium on new injection wells in the area took effect in January to allow time to determine what relationship, if any, there is between the wells and the earthquakes.
1 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
2 Environmental News Network, Climate Threat from short-Lived Climate Pollutants Upgraded by IPCC in 5th Assessment
3 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
4 NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
5 NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
6 Methane to Markets
7 Aegis Insurance Services
8 Aegis Insurance Services
9 Interstate Natural Gas Association of America
10 Newsday, May 3, 2009
11 American Gas Association
12 The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C., July 17, 2009
13 Pace, Life Cycle Assessment of GHG Emissions from LNG and Coal Fired Generation Scenarios: Assumptions and Results, February 3, 2009
14 Council on Foreign Relations, Liquefied Natural Gas: A Potential Terror Target? February 27, 2006
15 Council on Foreign Relations, Liquefied Natural Gas: A Potential Terror Target? February 27, 2006
16 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Interim Acute Exposure Levels: Methyl Mercaptan, October 2008
17 The Baltimore Sun, Gansler to Look Into Executive Pay at Constellation Energy, June 26, 2009
18 Daily Press (New News, Va.), Dominion CEO's compensation tops $7.3M, March 29, 2007
19 Business West, Highest-Paid CEOs, 2008-2009
20 The Wall Street Journal, Energy Industry Lobbies to Avert Drilling Rules, June 5, 2009
21 U.S. EPA, May 18, 2009
22 U.S. EPA press release, March 18, 2010
23 Scientific American, What the Frack? Natural Gas from Subterranean Shale Promises U.S. Energy Independence - With Environmental Costs, March 30, 2010
24 Vanity Fair, A Colossal Fracking Mess, June 21, 2010
25 Scientific American, Climate Benefits of Natural Gas May Be Overstated, January 26, 2011
26Business Week, Two Firms to Suspend Earthquake Zone Injection Wells, March 4, 2011