Over the past ten years, Virginia has seen a drastic change in its approach to energy as it has gone from majority coal to majority natural gas for electricity generation. The Commonwealth has made this transformation under the assumption that natural gas is better for the environment than coal. While that may be the case, recent evidence suggests that the margin of benefit is much smaller than may have been initially believed.
Natural gas is often said to produce about half as much carbon dioxide as coal. While this is largely true, it is an incomplete picture. In these assessments, carbon dioxide burned at combustion is the only measure. To get a more complete accounting of greenhouse gasses, methane gas leakage must also be considered. Methane gas is 84 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a period of twenty years. It leaks during production, transmission, and combustion. Taken in aggregate, these leaks significantly increase the overall lifecycle greenhouse gas output of natural gas.
Numerous recent studies indicate that we’re only beginning to understand just how much methane gas is leaked during the natural gas lifecycle, and that the EPA and other organizations significantly underestimated leakage rates (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2018/06/20/science.aar7204, https://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/february/methane-leaky-gas-021314.html, http://www.pnas.org/content/110/50/20018.full, well summarized here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/methane-leaks-offset-much-of-the-benefits-of-natural-gas-new-study-says/2018/06/21/e381654a-7590-11e8-b4b7-308400242c2e_story.html ).
When accounting for these leaks through the production-transmission-combustion lifecycle of using natural gas for electricity generation, natural gas is much closer to coal in terms of overall greenhouse gas production. Over the long term, technology can be developed to reduce these leaks, giving natural gas a clearer edger.
With all of this in mind, the 2018 Virginia Energy Plan should:
Choose renewable energy over natural gas and other fossil fuels, whenever possible, going forward.
Support the development of, and enforce the implementation of methane gas reduction technologies. This item in particular should have a good deal of political support as it’s good for environment and saves gas utilities and ratepayers money.
Over the next ten years, hopefully Virginia will again see a drastic change in its approach to energy - this time by moving away from natural gas and toward renewable energy.
Thank you for reading,
Zero Carbon Virginia