Starkey Citizens for a Clean & Healthy Environment
A Bridge to Nowhere: Methane Emissions and the Greenhouse Gas Footprint of Natural Gas

Robert W. Howarth


In April 2011, we published the first peer-reviewed analysis of the greenhouse gas footprint (GHG) of shale gas, concluding that the climate impact of shale gas may be worse than that of other fossil fuels such as coal and oil because of methane emissions. We noted the poor quality of publicly available data to support our analysis and called for further research. Our paper spurred a large increase in research and analysis, including several new studies that have better measured methane emissions from natural gas systems. Here, I review this new research in the context of our 2011 paper and the fifth assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in 2013. The best data available now indicate that our estimates of methane emission from both shale gas and conventional natural gas were relatively robust. Using these new, best available data and a 20-year time period for comparing the warming potential of methane to carbon dioxide, the conclusion stands that both shale gas and conventional natural gas have a larger GHG than do coal or oil, for any possible use of natural gas and particularly for the primary uses of residential and commercial heating. The 20-year time period is appropriate because of the urgent need to reduce methane emissions over the coming 1535 years.
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