Natural Gaslighting

Recently, I received a cheery e-mail from UGI, who provides our natural gas.  They were touting their “Environmental Sustainability Initiatives.” It said, in part: “Natural Gas is much cleaner than alternatives like coal, oil and electric (site to source)…switching households to these alternative fuels (sic) to these alternative fuels to natural gas has reduced greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing 103,000 cars from the road, resulting in nearly $108 million in annual energy cost savings.” (My emphasis) (Their emphasis)

Now, I expect to be outright lied to by the current Administration in Washington on matters related to the environment.   I expect to hear about jobs and cost savings from the fossil fuel industry. I did not expect UGI to blow smoke up my behind regarding the purported environmental virtues of natural gas.

An e-mail from UGI

Let’s deconstruct UGI’s statements.  On the surface, once natural gas gets into your home, it is half as bad as coal and oil with regard to CO2 emissions.  CO2 is one of the greenhouse gases that is heating up our planet at an unprecedented rate.  Cutting them drastically is required for our children and grandchildren to have something like a normal existence on this Earth.  If you are burning coal, then your CO2 production will be approximately 205-228 pounds for each million BTU, depending on the type of coal.  Bituminous burns dirtier than anthracite.  If you are burning home heating oil, then you are producing 161 pounds of CO2 for the same energy.  For natural gas, it would be 117 pounds of CO2.

Is this environmentally sustainable?  The short answer is no.  The most optimistic scenarios state that we need to be carbon neutral (no net addition of CO2 into the atmosphere) by no later than 2050 to avoid heating the planet more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above what it is today.  Bad things will happen even if we achieve this goal, but much worse will occur if we don’t.  

Scientifically Accurate Rendering of Earth on January 1, 2100.

To avoid the worst, we have to get to carbon neutral and quickly.  And while natural gas may emit half the CO2 of other fossil fuels, it is not a long-term solution and will not lead to environmental sustainability.  It is like Stalin and Hitler in a room talking to Roosevelt, and, Stalin saying, “Hey, FDR, I’m only half as bad as Hitler.”

Claim 1

How is natural gas cleaner than “electric (site to source)”?  Electric, site to source, means taking into account the fact that electricity is usually generated at a power plant, then transmitted some distance to the home.  In transmission, some electricity is lost, so there is a factor worked in.  Fair enough.  UGI, I believe, is also assuming electric generation is averaged from a combination of coal, natural gas, nuclear, and other (including renewables) some of which are CO2 emitters.  When you figure in the creation of electricity from dirty sources and factor in the loss in transmission, it is probably true that natural gas burned in the home is cleaner than site to source electricity.

However, the statement leaves you with the impression that natural gas is cleaner (in CO2 emissions) than electricity, which is false if that electricity is produced from nuclear or renewables like solar or wind.  Under some scenarios, natural gas is cleaner than electricity, but the statement completely avoids the option of renewables, which I believe was intentional.  Their claim also sweeps under the carpet the issue of site pollution from natural gas production at the well (see below).  We have an apples to oranges comparison here.

Claim 2

Let’s look at the second claim of reducing emissions equivalent to removing 103,000 cars from the road over 10 years.  I’m don’t know what UGI means by that statement.  There is no citation.  Secondly, this claim only makes sense in relation to something.  I could claim reading this blog is equivalent to extending your life by 2 months.  (No, it only seems like the time spent reading this was like 2 months.)

Let’s humor our good folks at UGI.  What is the emissions equivalent of 103,000 cars from the road over 10 years?   We can do a back of the napkin analysis.  First, let’s assume its 10,300 cars a year for 10 years.  The average US car is driven 13,476 miles per year (FWHA’s numbers).  There is no place to find the current gas mileage for the entire US fleet, just new cars (which is 24.7 mpg in 2016).  In 2018, cars and light vehicles consumed 142.86 gallons of gasoline (US Energy Department).  In the US, we drove 2,220,801 million miles in 2017, per the USDOT.  This computes to an average of 15.5 mpg.  To drive 13,476 miles at 15.5 mpg, you would need 869 gallons of gas.  Each gallon produces 19.60 pounds of CO2, so in a year each car would produce 17,032 pounds of CO2, or 8.52 tons (hereon in when we say ton, we mean the 2,000 pound short ton).  Our 10,300 cars a year would end up producing 87,756 tons of CO2 a year.  Sounds impressive…

…Until you realize that Pennsylvania’s total CO2 emissions are 239.1 million tons a year (US Energy Dept.), and that there are 4.68 million cars registered in PA (in 2015).  Against some unknown standard, UGI has reduced Pennsylvania’s CO2 emissions by 0.024 percent and reduced the number of CO2 emitting cars by 0.22%.  103,000 sounds like a large number, until you figure out what it means in the big picture. 

But Wait! There’s More.

To now, we have limited our discussion to source consumption of natural gas (although UGI was more than happy to compare source natural gas to site electricity).  If we squint, we can try to believe that natural gas is only half as bad as other fossil fuels and therefore might be a bridging fuel to the carbon-neutral future. What happens when we look at the site production numbers.  

For years, we have known that methane is a greenhouse gas.  The good news is that methane stays in the atmosphere for only a few decades, as opposed to CO2 which can remain for centuries.  The bad news is that methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, something like 34 times a potent.

Furthermore, the calculation of 34 times as potent is comparing methane and CO2 over a 100 year span.  Methane’s greatest impact is in the first 20 years. For the shorter 20-year span when methane is active, the global warming potential (GWP) is 84-87 times that of CO2 (EPA).

So what does this have to do with natural gas? Natural gas is mostly methane.  All wells leak a bit and what they are leaking is methane-dominated natural gas.  Leaking from the well head is not a given and well designed and constructed wells leak very little.  The current EPA estimate is that wells leak about 1.4%.  Unfortunately, a new analysis suggests that the current methane leak rate is closer to 2.3 percent, as reported in the Journal Science

Without running you through another calculation, I think you can see that any small leakage that is magnified 84 times will have a large impact over the next 20 years, totally overwhelming any short-term advantage of natural gas over other fossil fuels.  Clearly others are seeing that methane leakage from natural gas is a problem and in Pennsylvania our Governor Wolf rolled out methane restrictions in 2016.  Unfortunately, those restrictions are limited to new wells. Existing wells continue to remain unregulated for methane.  Ultimately, natural gas is bad for the atmosphere in the short term.  Under current ground rules and regulation, there is no benefit for using natural gas as a bridging fuel. None.

It’s Complicated

Last year, we finally took the plunge and installed solar panels on our house which will generate clean and renewable energy for 30 years.  Rated at 7.5kw, we are removing 3.2 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year.  Good for us.  However, in 2011 we replaced our oil furnace with a high energy natural gas boiler, which produces both our heat and hot water.  Last year we added a gas range for cooking.  On average we have used 97.84 mcf (thousand cubic feet) of natural gas each year.  Yes, we reduced our carbon footprint by changing from heating oil to natural gas, but we did not eliminate it.  Not considering the site sources of methane emission and focusing only on the source CO2, we are putting an average of 5.7 tons into the atmosphere. Not good for us.

Our Natural Gas Boiler

The hot water heating system we have is efficient and effective and keeps our home toasty through the winter.  The hot water is essentially on demand as we have no water heater.  Our 8 year old boiler is working fine and only needs an annual tune-up.  I personally like cooking with natural gas. I think I am a much better cook for it.  Today, we have limited options for switching to an all-electric boiler.  Most of the market for hydronic baseboard heat (the fancy technical term) is premised on natural gas-powered boilers. There is a small market for electric boilers that do the same, so it will come down to a matter of will and finances.

Our (beloved) Gas Range

With regard to our gas range, the logical side of my brain says that cooking is the same – gas versus electric, and electric can be carbon free. The emotional side of my brain says gas is superior, especially on the burners, especially in the ability to micro-control the heat immediately.  Ultimately, I feel we will surrender to modernity and the planet and switch back to an electric range.  It may take some time as the range is less than a year old.  Rather than taking the step of changing our boiler, we are looking into adding insulation to the attic.  Using less natural gas is one good way to reduce our footprint. 

In the meantime, what we can and should do is to pressure our representatives and our gas companies to fully embrace the monitoring of gas wells and pipelines for leakage and to enforce strict regulations on the production of natural gas.  As I speak, the Pennsylvania Environmental Board is vetting proposed rules restricting methane emissions from existing wells. Even fast tracked (it is not) and with the embrace of the General Assembly (I have my doubts), it will take at least another year for the regulations to take effect.

Of course, it would help if UGI would make some attempt to be truthful regarding the impacts of natural gas consumption on the atmosphere and the warming planet.  At least they could stop gaslighting us.