The False Promise of Natural Gas

The False Promise of Natural Gas

Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., Howard Frumkin, M.D., Dr.P.H., and Brita E. Lundberg, M.D. January 9, 2020 N Engl J Med 2020; 382:104-107

Production of natural gas has grown by nearly 400% in the United States since 1950, and gas is now the country’s second-largest energy source. The main driver of this increase has been the wide-scale adoption of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). During the fracking process, large volumes of water, sand, and chemicals are injected deep underground at high pressure to fracture shale deposits and sand and coal beds to release trapped gas. The world’s largest gas-transmission network — with more than 300,000 miles of interstate and intrastate transmission pipelines, 2.1 million miles of local distribution lines, and more than 1000 compressor stations — brings this gas to the market. The ready availability of gas has reduced dependence on coal and oil, enables the United States to ship gas overseas, and will make the country a net energy exporter by 2020.1 It has also made gas an important feedstock for the chemical, pesticide, and plastics-manufacturing industries. Natural gas, composed principally of methane, has been hailed as a clean “transition” fuel — a bridge from the coal and oil of the past to the clean energy sources of the future. This claim is partially true. Gas combustion produces only negligible quantities of sulfur dioxide, mercury, and particulates. It is thus less polluting than combustion of coal or oil, and this benefits health.2 Gas combustion also generates less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than combustion of coal or oil. Sign up for the Weekly Table of Contents email. Each week, receive an email with links to the articles published in the current week’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. SIGN UP

Health and Environmental Hazards of Natural Gas. But beneath this rosy narrative lies a more complex story. Gas is associated with health and environmental hazards and reduced social welfare at every stage of its life cycle.2 Fracking is linked to contamination of ground and surface water, air pollution, noise and light pollution, radiation releases, ecosystem damage, and earthquakes (see table). Transmission and storage of gas result in fires and explosions. The pipeline network is aging, inadequately maintained, and infrequently inspected. One or more pipeline explosions occur every year in the United States. In September 2018, a series of pipeline explosions in the M2242imack Valley in Massachusetts caused more than 80 fires and explosions, damaged 131 homes, forced the evacuation of 30,000 people, injured 25 people, including two firefighters, and killed an 18-year-old boy. Gas compressor stations emit toxic and carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and formaldehyde. Wells, pipelines, and compressor stations are disproportionately located in low-income, minority, and marginalized communities, where they may leak gas, generate noise, endanger health, and contribute to environmental injustice while producing no local benefits. Gas combustion generates oxides of nitrogen that increase asthma risk and aggravate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Compounding these hazards are the grave dangers that gas extraction and use pose to the global climate.3 Gas is a much more powerful driver of climate change than is generally recognized. As much as 4% of all gas produced by fracking is lost to leakage, and these releases appear to have contributed to recent sharp increases in atmospheric methane.4 Methane is a potent contributor to global warming, with a heat-trapping potential 30 times greater than that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year span and 85 times greater over a 20-year span. Gas burned in stoves and boilers additionally contributes to global warming by generating carbon dioxide. Together, this evidence suggests that the purported advantage of gas over coal and oil has been greatly overstated. Despite growing recognition of the dangers associated with gas and recent exponential increases in the production of electricity from renewables, new gas wells continue to be drilled and new pipelines built. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that daily natural-gas production in the United States will increase by 10 billion cubic feet in the next year and that under current federal policy, more electricity will be generated from gas than from renewables each year from now through 2050.1 This expansion of the gas infrastructure is supported by government subsidies and tax breaks that benefit the fossil-fuel industry and artificially depress gas prices.5 State subsidies provide additional support for fossil fuels. As physicians deeply concerned about climate change and pollution and their consequences, we consider expansion of the natural-gas infrastructure to be a grave hazard to human health. All reasonable analyses indicate that we must leave nearly all remaining fossil fuels in the ground if we are to hold the extent of global warming below 1.5°C, the target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and thus mitigate the health and environmental consequences of climate change. A further argument against investment in gas is that it is economically reckless. Such investment ignores the reality that the cost of producing electricity from renewables is falling rapidly and that energy prices are approaching a “tipping point” after which it will become cheaper to generate electricity from solar and wind sources than from gas. The Energy Information Administration estimates that by 2023 it will cost $36.60 per megawatt-hour to produce electricity from wind and $37.60 to produce solar energy, versus $40.20 to produce energy from gas. Any investment in gas is thus at risk of failing to yield an economic return and becoming a stranded asset. This risk could increase if federal subsidies for gas were to be cut. We believe that investment in gas is also shortsighted. States that provide subsidies for gas and permit construction of new pipelines and compressor stations will lock in dependence on gas for years to come while missing opportunities to invest in renewables. The real problem with fracking, then, is that it perpetuates the carbon-based energy system and delays the transition to a carbon-free economy. To address this problem, we recommend that state and federal subsidies for natural gas be reduced over the next 2 years and then eliminated. The International Monetary Fund has made similar recommendations. We also recommend that new residential or commercial gas hookups not be permitted, new gas appliances be removed from the market, further gas exploration on federal lands be banned, and all new or planned construction of gas infrastructure be halted. We believe an ill-conceived proposal announced recently by the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back limits on methane pollution needs to be blocked. At the same time, we call for the creation of new tax structures, subsidies, and incentives such as carbon pricing that favor wind, solar power, and other nonpolluting, renewable energy sources and policies that support energy conservation, clean vehicles, and expansion of public transit. Implementation of these recommendations will require courageous political leadership and face fierce resistance. But wide-scale transition to renewables would yield enormous benefit for the United States. It would reduce air pollution and therefore prevent disease, extend life expectancy, and reduce health care costs. It would free up the billions of public dollars now spent on fossil-fuel subsidies, and it would protect our planet. Models exist for effective climate action. In July 2019, New York State enacted comprehensive energy and climate legislation and pledged to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 85% by 2050. To meet this target, New York is developing the country’s largest wind farm and collaborating with Ireland and Denmark to improve its electric power grid. It has also created economic incentives for clean vehicles, including trucks and buses, and tax incentives for energy conservation. Idaho Power, the largest utility in a deeply conservative state, has pledged to produce 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045. The United Kingdom has committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. New York, Idaho, and the United Kingdom are creating new, high-paying jobs in the wind and solar energy industries. Natural gas has been portrayed as a bridge to the future. The data now show that it is only a tether to the past. We believe it’s time to reject the false promise of gas.

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