Another blow against methane: LNG is worse for climate than coal at real-world leakage rates, says Dept. of Energy

Out of the Dept. of Energy’s own mouth — well, its accidentally honest press department — comes this stunner. Liquefied natural gas (LNG, or methane compressed into a liquid for long-distance transportation) has no climate benefit.

Why, you may ask? Because all of the supposed climate “savings” are offset — or more than offset — by its leak rate. And thanks to the DoE, we can now translate various leak rates into measurable “global warming potential.” Methane is not a winner.

Let’s start with the valuable Joe Romm at ThinkProgress (my emphasis and paragraphing):

Energy Department Bombshell: LNG Has No Climate Benefit For Decades, IF EVER

An explosive new report from the U.S. Department of Energy makes clear that Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is likely a climate-destroying misallocation of resources. That is, if one uses estimates for methane leakage based on actual observations.

This is the same conclusion I reached back in 2012, based on

■ Emerging analyses of how even a relatively low leakage rate in the natural gas production and delivery system negate its climate benefit, and

■ A 2009 EU report on how the energy-intensive liquefaction process and transportation further increase LNG emissions.

Again, natural gas is mostly methane, and some 86 times (to as much as 105 times) better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

One of the country’s leading experts on natural gas leaks told me, “a close reading of the DOE report in the context of the recent literature indicates that exporting natural gas from the U.S. as LNG is a very poor idea.” …

To make LNG a climate winner, you’d have to assume levels of methane leakage that are a factor of 2 to 3 lower than what recent observations reveal. That is exactly what DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) does in its analysis, “Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Perspective on Exporting Liquefied Natural Gas from the United States.”

Romm shows a chart from the DoE report that asserts (positively) that LNG leakage rates in the U.S.-to-Rotterdam and U.S.-to-Shanghai trade — “methane leakage that occurs during extraction, processing, and transport on a 20-year basis” — to be 1.4% and 1.6% respectively.

That chart discussed in Romm’s piece. The problem — it allows us to evaluate the 20-year climate effect (shown as “GWP” or global warming potential in the chart) of real-world leakage rates as well. Just click here and follow the green and blue lines as they up. The X-axis is leakage; the Y-axis is GWP. The heavy black horizontal line is coal.

See what I mean? Methane is a climate killing disaster at higher leak rates.

By publishing “break-even” leaking points for LNG, DoE allows real-world leakage rates to be evaluated

Break-even leakage evaluations show at what point leakage from methane make LNG a climate-benefiting “deal” relative to coal and other carbon-emitting alternatives. The DoE, of course, is in the business of asserting — using the industry’s word for it — that U.S. LNG is at or near those leakage points.

Why? Because the DoE is apparently in the business of promoting the sale of methane, owned by huge corporations that will profit from it, to LNG customers abroad. They do that by asserting that (1) that U.S. LNG is more climate-friendly than coal; and (2) that U.S. LNG is more climate-friendly than Russian LNG.

For example, here’s what the report says about shipped U.S. LNG compared with coal:

“As previously noted, the calculated breakeven points are the most conservative, so these results do not indicate that natural gas has a higher GHG than coal on a 20-year basis in all cases.”

“Hello, Europe,” the DoE says. “Our methane companies’ product is no worse than coal and better than LNG from Russia.” Nice to have the government selling your product. First the EPA, now the DoE.

Trouble is, these are just assertions, and those leakage rates are fake. But because all leak rates are evaluated in the DoE report, real-world rates can be evaluated as well. Romm:

[L]eakage rates are almost certainly at least double that! Yes, the EPA has lowered its estimate to about 1.5 percentbased solely on industry-provided numbers. But multiple studies in the last two years based on actual observations have made clear the EPA was simply wrong.

Back in November, fifteen scientists from some of the leading institutions in the world — including Harvard, NOAA and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab — published a seminal observation-based study, “Anthropogenic emissions of methane in the United States.” …

The study found greenhouse gas emissions from “fossil fuel extraction and processing (i.e., oil and/or natural gas) are likely a factor of two or greater than cited in existing studies.” … This suggests the methane leakage rate from natural gas production is in fact 3 percent or higher.

Find 3% leakage for the two U.S. lines (green and blue) on the chart. Now look at the GWP for those leak values. Not good.

More from Romm:

A comprehensive Stanford study from February suggested things might even be worse[.] … Their analysis finds:

“… an excess percentage leakage of 1.8% to 5.4% of end use gas. Coupled with the current estimate of 1.8% leakage of end use gas consumed, this generates a high-end estimate of 7.1% gas leakage.”

If you look at the chart, a leakage rate of 7% for the two U.S. products is literally through the roof (the top of the chart). The GWP of methane with a 7% leakage rate would be near double that of straight, dirty, gritty, black local coal (again, the horizontal black line).

Methane leaks everywhere, especially from fracking fields

Romm also cites Dr. Robert Howarth and a 2012 study of methane leakage. (We referenced a different report from Dr. Howarth here, to indicate just how methane-friendly the new EPA “Clean Power Plan” is designed to be.)

From independent observations, provided outside the methane industry, leakage is easily two to four times greater than the industry “estimates” that the DoE depend on — and frankly, if you consider leakage from fracking fields, likely a whole lot more. From an earlier piece on methane and leakage:

[M]easurements show that on one February day in the Uintah Basin, the natural gas field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced, on average, on February days.

But methane, as you’d expect, leaks everywhere it’s handled. Add in leaks during transportation, processing, and delivery to the end-user. Add in accidental (or otherwise) venting by end users, including home-owners. Whenever you turn on the stovetop gas, you’re venting methane until it lights.

In addition, if you’re looking at LNG shipped abroad, add in all of these handlers as well:

From Fracking Fields, to Transportation, to LNG Processing, and then this. Methane leaks at every step in this process. (Source: ThinkProgress)

From Fracking Fields, to Transportation, to LNG Processing Plants, and then the LNG chain. Methane leaks at every step in this process. (Source: ThinkProgress)

Remember, gaseous methane from fracking fields go through handling and transportation, just to get to the start of the chart above. Then the leakage continues.

Conversion to methane is conversion to a planet-changer

Conversion to methane for energy — is conversion to a planet-changer, one worse than CO2 in the short run. The only purpose of a conversion to methane is a conversion to industry-owned dollars, barely-taxed and often-rebated dollars at that.

That methane is “clean” is an industry-created, U.S. government–abetted lie. Tell everyone you know. It matters.

Methane doesn’t just displace coal — it displaces renewables as well

The problem with methane doesn’t end with its carbonification of the air. It actually prevents other solutions from occurring. By converting to methane — dangerous in itself — we fail to convert to wind, solar, hydro and other renewable sources of energy. Also dangerous.

Put differently, in the same way Obama’s ACA prevents the expansion of Medicare, Obama’s conversion to methane prevents conversion to non-carbon energy sources. Did I say “Obama”? I meant it.


[N]atural gas doesn’t just displace coal — it also displaces carbon-free sources of power such as renewable energy, nuclear power, and energy efficiency. …

Investing billions of dollars in new shale gas infrastructure for domestic use is, as we’ve seen, a bridge to nowhere — especially until we put in place both a CO2 price [carbon tax] and regulations to minimize methane leakage. The extra emissions from LNG completely eliminate whatever benefit there might be of building billion-dollar export terminals and other LNG infrastructure, which in any case will last many decades, long after we need a nearly carbon-free electric grid.

All to make money for the wealthiest corporations on the planet. Why would he, and they, do that?

Will someone investigate the methane industry’s ties to the U.S. government?

I swear the U.S. government is in bed with Big Methane.

Anyone want to take this on as an investigation project? Industry ties to other government agencies are just so blatant, and there’s literally billions/year in revenue at stake here. No one in government is handing across all that dough for free. No one in government is that naïve, or generous.



Twitter: @Gaius_Publius
Gaius Publi

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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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15 Responses to “Another blow against methane: LNG is worse for climate than coal at real-world leakage rates, says Dept. of Energy”

  1. Blueford Blanky says:

    First of all, you should have just posted a link to Romm’s article because you’ve done nothing but quote him and regurgitate his data and analysis. The only original content you’ve added is a never ending stream of snarky comments about the oil & gas industry.

    Second, both you and Romm conveniently ignore data & analysis from the studies you quote that would go against your argument, like the conclusion that

    “the analysis also finds that some recent studies showing very high methane emissions in regions with considerable natural gas infrastructure are not representative of the entire gas system”

    from the Stanford study–suggesting that the high-end estimate of 7.1% is exaggerated. Not to mention that you essentially only consider the high-end estimate–making you either foolish or just as deceptive as the industry and government officials you criticize for only emphasizing low-end estimates. I’m leaning towards the former considering this quoting of yourself:
    “[M]easurements show that on one February day in the Uintah Basin, the natural gas field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced, on average, on February days”

    shows your grasp of statistics is questionable at best. Just in case your error isn’t obvious enough, one day (or one week for that matter) of measurements can’t give you a reliable daily average.

    The Stanford study also mentions that 60% of the leaks come from 0.0667% (50 out of 75,000) of the total components in a processing plant–suggesting that a manageable number of repairs could significant reduce leakage.

    Furthermore, neither you, Romm, or the Stanford study (which explicitly states as much) give any consideration to the idea that future leakage could be reduced through regulation and new technology, or the obvious fact that it’s in the oil & gas industry’s best interests to curtail leakage–escaping methane is bad for the environment AND profits.

    Last, and perhaps your most grievous error, is your bafflingly naïve depiction of all the players in this situation. You’re right that the oil & gas industry is in bed with the government–EVERY industry is. Environmental and industry groups alike spend millions every year lobbying for government favor. Environmentalists, oil companies, and climate scientists all have a lot riding on the climate question. Nobody is impartial with millions (billions) of dollars on the line, and that certainly includes scientists who stand to lose their funding and credibility if the climate movement loses steam–I’m not commenting on the validity of climate science, but pointing out that the careers of climate scientists would be seriously threatened if their work loses traction.

    Your claim that the oil & gas industry is “barely-taxed” is quite simply wrong. Exploration and production companies (upstream) face an effective tax rate over 50%–one of the highest faced by any industry and 140%+ greater than the average national effective rate of 20.5% (see: tax rate by industry).
    If you really cared about the environment you might actually stop to consider the potential of natural gas (in whatever form) to reduce GHG emissions in the near and long term instead of spouting off oil & gas insults and conspiracy theories like a mindless drone for the cause. Maybe methane leakage IS too high at this point in time, but regardless there is certainly room for improvement. If you set aside your ideological fervor and consider the climate problem pragmatically, it’s clear that natural gas is the only viable option for significantly reducing emissions in the short to intermediate term. Renewables are great in theory, but not in practice–they won’t have the necessary technology or capacity to support the US power grid for at least another decade. Natural gas isn’t perfect, but innovation requires refinement to reach its full potential and that’s what we’re seeing right now. Emissions have already been cut to 10% below 2005 levels in the last few years, and that’s WITH a huge ramp up in NG production and consumption. The trend continues even with energy consumption back around pre-recession levels.
    At the end of the day, baseless rhetoric and mindless regurgitation of rehashed arguments can’t stand in the way of this country’s only feasible opportunity to cut GHG emissions now. Refusing to acknowledge the potential of natural gas to clean up the environment reveals the confused priorities of many in the environmental movement today–attacks on the only industry that stands to make a meaningful positive impact on the climate now and in the near to intermediate future just because they’re the traditional ‘bad guys’ are solely misplaced. The conversation should be about how the industry can deliver natural gas to market in the most environmentally conscious manner.
    We’d all love to get all of our energy from the sun and not pay a dime for it, but we can’t now and we probably won’t be able to for another 10-20 years. Refusing to accept the reality of energy situation will only hurt the climate. Self-righteous bloviating won’t cut emissions.

  2. trinu says:

    1.) I’m referring mostly to the burning itself. Methane combustion releases less carbon per unit of energy released than oil or coal.
    2.) I recommend nuclear power because it has zero carbon emissions (the recent Fukushima disaster happened because TEPCO cut corners and didn’t implement modern safety systems). Solar and wind are great but people tend to forget that depending on the local environment and how you implement them, even they can have negative consequences. We could greatly reduce our use of the power grid with rooftop solar, but having a dedicated solar power plant outside of sunny deserts would tend to require clearing large areas of land. In a well forested area like the northeast that would probably mean cutting down forests, and thus releasing most of the carbon stored in the trees (a tree’s dry weight is mostly carbon). Wind turbines can kill birds so before a plant is built, ornithologists with local knowledge should be consulted. In the future we may be able to farm hydrogen fuel using algae, water, and sunlight but of course Congress has decided to cut funding for almost all non-military scientific research, and frankly we’ve passed the point where we can no longer wait for renewables to become better and more widely available.

  3. BillFromDover says:

    But, methane doesn’t introduce mercury, lead and arsenic into our atmosphere and sea food, so what the hey… yes?

    And as your average American idiot would be completely baffled when asked to explain the difference between one part hydrogen + two parts oxygen vs one part carbon and + parts hydrogen, as to the warming of our planet, is it any wonder they flock to Rush, Sean, Glenn and Alex for their absolute truth and talking points of the day?

    In a nutshell, we’re fucked and we have nothing to blame other than our own (willful) ignorance?

    And how fucking sad is that?

  4. GaiusPublius says:

    methane, when extracted and used properly, is the cleanest of all fossil fuels by far

    Thanks, trinu. Two comments. (1) I’d love to see the definition of “clean” as used in the above sentence.

    (2) Methane is still a fossil fuel. Burning it produces atmospheric CO2. What would you say if you found out there’s just no more room in the air for any more greenhouse gases — that more GHGs will take us into uncharted climate territory with not good outcome? Would you still recommend burning methane?

    Serious questions, and thanks for joining the discussion.


  5. Indigo says:

    But the nice pants suit lady on television has already told us that natural gas is our future. She doesn’t lie.

    I question her ethics as an actor making a propaganda piece for the oil industry to sell the story that natural gas is the future of efficient energy so there’s no need to discuss the energy concerns further, we sat so. But her ethics as an actress are not the issue. It’s on television, it’s the propaganda of this time and place and many people effortlessly accept it.

  6. Bill_Perdue says:

    The US government and both main parties are in bed with capitalists and their corporations and workers have been kicked under out into the street.

    Things haven’t changed much in the last century or so. In fact, because of Democrat and Republican politicians, they’ve gotten worse.

  7. trinu says:

    Oh they have the technological capability to extract it properly (though not to transport it over long distances without leakage), indeed they employed it with natural gas facilities in the days before fracking, but you’re right they have no interest in it because they prioritize short term profits over all else.

  8. Naja pallida says:

    The key phrase there is ‘extracted and used properly’. The energy industry has proven it has no interest, nor the technological capability, of doing so. As long as there is easy profit to be made, and few safety standards they’re required to comply with, they have no incentive to bother. Any leakage, or subsequent explosions, are just the cost of doing business in the most recklessly profitable way possible.

  9. trinu says:

    The thing is methane, when extracted and used properly, is the cleanest of all fossil fuels by far, and corporations could make a decent profit off it, but they realized that in the short term, they could make even greater profits by fracking (sure it hurts long term because that leakage is lost product and the well won’t last as long) and transporting it over great distances.

  10. Naja pallida says:

    Nor an ancient burial ground.

  11. 2karmanot says:

    To wit: never buy a home built on a former dairy farm.

  12. Naja pallida says:

    The simple fact that there are leaks at all is proof that the LNG industry has no idea how to safely handle their product – because that’s literally profit evaporating away. That there haven’t been more frequent accidents is merely blind luck. And it isn’t just at the fracking and storage level, methane leaks are the norm wherever it is served. Manholes around the Manhattan and DC areas were found to have methane levels well above the risk for an explosion, due to an aged pipe system leaking like a sieve. Undoubtedly it’s the same story in other cities. It’s a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’, this causes a major disaster. Private utilities have been completely ignoring their pipelines, letting them slowly rot away, leaking the whole time, waiting for cities to be the ones to pay for it. Since there’s such a risk to the public, they will have no choice but to do so. Public risk, private profit.

    Also consider that methane release is a side effect of coal mining, industrial farming, waste water storage, landfills… there are no shortage of man-made sources that all need to be brought under some kind of control.

  13. Dave of the Jungle says:

    LNG tankers make deliveries at ports which are adjacent to business districts and population centers. If one of those ignitied, it would be truly catastrophic. Many proposed new terminal sites are in locations where seismic hazard is considerable. All very unsavory.

  14. gratuitous says:

    Thanks for this information. I have friends near the Oregon coast, where the LNG industry would love to put some terminals, but they’ve been stymied for years due to grass-roots citizen opposition. It always made me suspicious about LNG terminals, because if something is supposed to be a good job creator kind of industrial concern, it gets sited in Washington or California. The fact that the LNG industry is courting Oregon so hard for its West Coast distribution center is a strong indicator that Washington and California have said “no how, no way.”

    This information about leak rates is another solid argument.

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