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Biden faces pressure as scientists question gas as ‘cleaner’ fuel

By Jake Beardslee · February 6, 2024

In brief…

  • New research challenges idea that natural gas burns much cleaner than coal.
  • Scientists scrutinizing full life-cycle emissions, from extraction to end use.
  • Debate centers on methane leaks and emissions from liquefying gas for export.
  • Cornell study claims LNG process makes gas worse for climate than coal.
  • Industry groups argue LNG exports clearly cut emissions by displacing coal abroad.
Recent studies finding high methane emissions from natural gas production and liquefaction are fueling debate over gas as a climate-friendly "bridge fuel."  Elvert Barnes from Silver Spring MD, USA/Wikimedia

A simmering debate over the climate impact of natural gas is coming to a boil amid the Biden administration’s move to pause permits for liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports. Conventional wisdom has long held that gas burns cleaner than coal and could serve as a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy. But new research challenges that view, even as gas has rapidly displaced coal in power generation, writes Ben Storrow in E&E News.

Scientists are scrutinizing the full life-cycle emissions of natural gas - from extraction to end use - and finding the climate impact may be worse than previously thought. In December, 170 climate scientists signed a letter urging President Biden to halt LNG export terminals, arguing the LNG process is “at least 24 percent worse for the climate than coal.”

The liquefaction and shipping of LNG is energy-intensive, allowing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to escape. Studies also show methane leaks across the natural gas supply chain. Methane doesn’t linger as long as CO2 but has a stronger short-term warming effect.

Industry groups contend LNG exports clearly reduce emissions by displacing coal abroad. But a 2019 Energy Department study found a wide range - from 54 percent less to just 2 percent less than coal over 20 years.

Cornell professor Robert Howarth says past studies overlooked emissions from liquefaction. His forthcoming research finds the LNG process makes natural gas worse for the climate than coal. Critics counter his findings are inflated.

The debate coincides with rapid growth in U.S. natural gas production and LNG exports. “It’s totally the wrong trajectory,” says Howarth. But the gas industry argues the climate benefits are well established. The conflicting claims ensure natural gas emissions will remain a flashpoint.