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Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” is making the country’s vast natural gas reserves accessible at low cost. Natural gas produces about half the carbon emissions as coal and is an attractive and  affordable alternative. But extracting and transporting all that natural gas, which is mostly methane, also results in fuel leaks.When methane leaks, it has a shorter-lived but much stronger global warming effect as the carbon dioxide released when the same amount of methane is burned. Particularly on relatively short time frames of 10 or 20 years, too much methane leakage can make the fuel less attractive than even dirty old coal.  Methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Assuming the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate of the industry’smethane leakage rate — 2.4 percent — is accurate, choosing to build a new gas power plant instead of a new coal plant produces immediate greenhouse emissions benefits. Replacing old, inefficient coal plants with new natural gas facilities would presumably produce larger benefits. But using natural gas to run cars wouldn’t reduce net climate impacts for 80 years. Fueling heavy-duty trucks with natural gas wouldn’t result in greenhouse emissions benefits for 300 years.

These results undercut the environmental rationale for the proposed NaturalGas Act, which would provide federal support for converting America’s heavy-truck fleet to run on natural gas. But they underscore the appeal of rules about to be finalized at the EPA, which would require natural gas producers to prevent leaks from wells, pipelines, storage tanks and other infrastructure. The rules are designed to reduce the release of volatile organic compounds that formdangerous smog, but the EPA estimates that they would also result in the collection of 3.4 million tons of methane annually, a quarter of current methane emissions from the sector.

On top of environmental benefits, gas producers would have more product to sell. Reducing leaks might not be a money-making proposition at every well — and the industry naturally claims the government is off in its figures — but the EPA
reckons that, overall, new standards will save the industry about $30 million a year.

The Obama administration must issue the final regulations by Tuesday. As long as regulators have a reasonable confidence that drillers will have enough time to deploy the necessary equipment, the rules will help ensure that natural gas contributes to the fight against climate change inexpensively, and perhaps mightily. (Wash Post, 4/16/2012)