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Natural gas: for better or for worse?

Natural gas: For better or for worse?

With concern growing over the global warming threat, many public policy experts say countries in the near future must obtain more energy from natural gas and less from oil and coal. Natural gas seems a better source because it produces less carbon dioxide during combustion than does coal or oil, and carbon dioxide is the principal greenhouse gas humans are adding to the atmosphere. But a new study suggests natural gas may not deserve its environmentally clean reputation.

Dean E. Abrahamson, a public affairs professor at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis-St. Paul, reports that a significant amount of natural gas leaks into the atmosphere during transportation. Natural gas, composed mostly of methane, exerts a strong greenhouse effect both directly and indirectly, and can heat the atmosphere 30 to 70 times more than carbon dioxide, Abrahamson says. He calculates that natural gas would contribute more greenhouse warming than oil if more than 1 or 2 percent of the gas leaked into the atmosphere during transmission through pipelines and distribution. He conducted his study for the Oil Heat Task force, an industry trade association, which released it Aug. 2.

The new report raises the question of how much gas actually leaks into the air. Abrahamson's study doesn't address that. But he does report figures showing that interstate gas pipelines "lose" about 0.5 percent of the gas and that 2 to 3 percent is "lost and unaccounted for" when companies distribute the gas.

The Oil Heat Task Force uses these figures to conclude that heating oil causes less global warming than gas. but the "lost and unaccounted for" category is just an accounting term that includes theft, meter error and other factors, and it does not represent the actual amount leaking into the atmosphere, according to the American Gas Association, a gas trade group. In a survey, the association found that 0.43 percent of the total gas escapes into the air during transmission and distribution.

According to Nicholas A. Sundt of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, these numbers are only estimates and the actual figures remain unknown. The Environmental Protection Agency has commissioned a study to quantify the actual leakage for the United States, but the difficult study may take two to three years to complete, Sundt says.

If Abrahamson is correct in concluding that a small amount of natural-gas venting could tip the environmental balance in favor of oil, policymakers will face some difficult choices, especially outside the United States, where experts presume leakage poses a bigger problem, Sundt says.
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Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 19, 1989
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