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The World Is Waking Up to the Truth That Natural Gas Is Dirty

The U.N.’s new Global Methane Report throws cold water on a longtime fossil fuel industry talking point.

David McNew/Getty Images
Flame emerges from a fracking rig in the Monterey Shale formation, as natural gas is burned off.

In the last several years, the fossil fuel industry has tried to paint itself as being on a smooth path toward a clean energy future. Its members are (allegedly) standing by, ready to join the fight for the planet as invaluable partners in building a better tomorrow. “Our industry is essential to supplying energy that makes life modern, healthier and better,” the American Petroleum Institute wrote recently in its Climate Action Framework, “while doing so in ways that tackle the climate challenge.”

But reading through the document and other industry talking points gives the impression that “natural” gas, primarily made of methane, is a planetary savior. “The continued availability of low-cost U.S. natural gas combined with a strong export policy—especially as it pertains to liquefied natural gas (LNG)—presents an opportunity to achieve continued success in emissions reductions around the world,” the API added.

A report out this week from the United Nations Environment Program and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition begs to disagree. The “Global Methane Assessment” finds that the heat-trapping gas endemic to gas supply chains needs to decline rapidly. Focusing solely on decarbonization targets, authors note, “will only achieve about 30 percent of the methane reductions needed over the next 30 years.” Cutting methane emissions 45 percent before 2030 can avoid 0.3 degrees Celsius of global warming by the 2040s, and avoid 255,000 premature deaths. And “without relying on future massive-scale deployment of unproven carbon removal technologies, expansion of natural gas infrastructure and usage is incompatible with keeping warming to 1.5° C.”

Methane is shorter-lived than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but as much as 86 times as potent a warming agent over the 20-year period after it’s emitted. It’s as much as 34 times more potent over 100 years. And despite suggestions to the contrary, it’s not planet-friendly when it’s burned, either; used as fuel, it emits roughly half as much carbon dioxide as coal but is hardly carbon-neutral. In 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency reported that methane rose more, over a single year, than since record-keeping began in the 1980s. Human-caused methane emissions—which account for more than half of the total—stem largely from just three sectors: agriculture (40 percent), waste (20 percent), and fossil fuels (35 percent). Owing in part to growing concerns about that—and a Democratic White House and Congress—BP and Shell have each backed the push to roll back Trump-era restrictions on regulating methane emissions through the Congressional Review Act.

Still, expanding gas production is central to fossil fuel industry climate commitments, which bet heavily on unproven technologies to maintain something loosely akin to business as usual. “With respect to [liquefied natural gas], you know, obviously, gas is going to continue to play a really important role as economies around the world develop, populations grow, people’s standards of living [rise], all are going to require power generation,” ExxonMobil’s CEO Darren Woods told investors during its quarterly earnings call last week. “And gas is going to continue to play an important role, in part because it’s a really good substitute for coal and the fact that it’s got much lower emissions, obviously, and lower particulate.” In April, BP—the company that’s been most outspoken about wanting to go green—announced it will be embarking on two new gas projects in India and Egypt. Shell’s Energy Transition Strategy notes, “Ending our activities in oil and gas too early when they are vital to meeting today’s energy demand would not help our customers, or our shareholders.” The company contends that it will enjoy “attractive exploration opportunities in the first half of this decade.” Shell projects gas will account for 55 percent of its hydrocarbon sales through 2030.

There are, as the “Global Methane Assessment” notes, several straightforward ways to decrease the amount of methane currently spewing from gas supply chains with existing technology, including new regulations on existing operations. But continuing to replace coal with gas threatens to lock in a fuel source that needs to decline rapidly. The report notes that in climate models that rely minimally on the prospect of low-cost miracle technologies emerging to save us, “global production of gas has to decline annually by ~3% over 2020–2030 to be consistent with a 1.5° C pathway. This corresponds to a decrease in gas usage by roughly one-third by 2030, whereas current plans and projections are for an increase of ~20 percent relative to 2020 usage.”

As the report’s lead author, Drew Shindell, underlined at a press conference announcing it, “One thing the report calls for very strongly is not building any more of this fossil fuel infrastructure. When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”