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Methane from ‘natural’ gas-fired power plants means they are no cleaner than coal-fired plants

The US EPA has recently re-assessed the percentage (%) of natural gas (mostly methane) that leaks industrially. According to David Lewis in an article entitled “EPA confirms natural gas leakage rates” (The Energy Collective, 7 December 2010) this means that:  “3.25 % of US natural gas production leaks into the atmosphere as methane gas.  The industry has been saying the leaks are tiny, less than a fraction of 1%.”

Because natural gas-fired power plants emit half the CO2 and much lower levels of other pollutants per unit energy produced as coal-fired plants there is a big push for a coal to gas transition. However methane (CH4; the major constituent of natural gas) leaks and is 72 times worse than carbon dioxide (CO2) as a greenhouse gas (GHG) on a 20 year time scale. It can be readily calculated that a 3.7% leakage of CH4 yields that same GHG effect as burning the remaining 96.7% of the CH4.  Thus if gas-fired power plants have half the CO2 pollution of coal-fired plants then a 3.7% gas leakage would mean that gas-fired plants would be about as a dirty GHG-wise as coal-fired plants i.e. a coal to gas transition would be a wasted investment from a GHG perspective.

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