Natural gas production in the US, which has grown by 400% since 1950, is on the rise. Methane is now one of the nation’s largest sources of energy, second only to petroleum. This week, physicians in the New England Journal of Medicine called out natural gas as a threat to health and a setback for climate action, laying out the case for rejecting “the false promise” of natural gas.
Dr. Phillip Landrigan, a pediatrician and environmental health researcher, together with Dr. Howard Frumkin and Dr. Brita Lundberg, offer a series of ambitious policy recommendations:
“To address this problem [of greenhouse gas emissions from fracking], 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.”
Their plea could not be more timely. With world leaders in Madrid attending meetings on status of the Paris Climate Agreement, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets of the Spanish capital demanding more commitment to climate action. They are trying to bring a dose of reality to complacency: This is a climate crisis. The science is irrefutable, the impacts are here, and the costs of inaction are crippling. Yet the US, the world’s only nation not a party to the Paris agreement, and the nation responsible for the most historic greenhouse gas emissions per capita, barrels down a business-as-usual path of inaction.
One dangerous step on that path is a proposal from the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency to loosen pollution standards for methane from oil and gas operations. The public comment period for the proposal closed last month; EPA is now reviewing the more than 300,000 comments received by the agency in response to its proposal to roll back methane pollution standards.
Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, and it is leaking at shocking rates from well pad to compressor station to pipeline to power plant or cooking stove. As Drs. Landrigan, Frumkin, and Lundberg point out, as much as 4% of all gas produced by fracking is lost to leakage. For a gas that is 85 times more powerfully heat-trapping than carbon dioxide in the two decades after its release, this leakage packs a climate punch we can sorely afford at this juncture of human civilization, when the IPCC has told us we have scarcely a decade to get our global greenhouse gas emissions under control, in order to avoid the very worst consequences of runaway climate change.