Opinion: Natural Gas — Proceed, But With Caution
But the carbon advantage of natural-gas engines could be wiped out if we’re not careful. Why? Because natural gas — specifically unburned methane — is itself an enormously potent greenhouse gas when it leaks into the atmosphere. Ounce for ounce, methane is 72 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over 20 years.
These fugitive emissions of natural gas occur throughout the natural-gas supply chain, from the wellhead to the fuel pump. Unless we take steps to measure and reduce them, natural-gas engines could very well be much worse for our climate than diesel.
So how do we keep the potential blessings of natural gas from becoming a curse? It all comes down to a number: 1%. That’s the total amount of methane, scientists say, we can afford to let escape systemwide before the environmental costs start to outweigh the benefits.
Estimates of how much is escaping now are all over the map. The truth is, nobody knows. That’s why EDF is working with the gas industry and engine makers to figure out the real scope of the problem and find the best ways to solve it. According to government estimates, the current systemwide emissions for natural gas used in trucks is 2.5%. Some say it’s lower, others say higher.
We do know that every ounce of natural gas that escapes wastes a valuable domestic fuel and undermines the environmental benefits.
As a matter of principle, EDF cannot endorse natural gas as a road fuel until we know that overall fugitive emissions are less than 1%. And, as somebody who has been down these roads before, I’d urge the industry not to rush in either until we know the whole story.
There’s an obvious desire to talk about going green with natural gas. Your public relations team probably has the talking points already. But a lot of folks out there will react badly if the promise turns out not to be true, which means there’s a risk to your corporate reputation.
We at EDF aren’t the only ones concerned about this. We’ve heard from companies in your industry that are worried they might end up holding the bag if this isn’t solved before moving forward. And if your competitors are concerned, you probably should be, too.
The good news is, there are lots of ways for us to get down to that 1%. Remember, we’re talking about saving a valuable product, which helps the math. And the responsibility here shouldn’t fall on end-users alone. It is going to take a systemwide approach, and we think many of the solutions lie upstream of the truck.
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