Natural gas might not be what it's fracked up to be

Chinese workers check valves of gas pipes at a natural gas plant in Suining, in southwest China's Sichuan province on November 15, 2010.

Kai Ryssdal: Crude oil took a big tumble today, down about 3.5 percent in New York. An analyst at Goldman Sachs came out this morning and said prices had gotten ahead of fundamentals -- that's a fancy way of saying prices didn't match up against crude supply and gasoline demand.

But with oil still over $105 a barrel, natural gas is all the rage. There's plenty of it. It burns cleaner than than oil or coal. That is, fewer greenhouse gases go out into the atmosphere. Or at least we thought it did.

A study set to come out later this week says the way we drill to get natural gas is anything but clean. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.


Eve Troeh: On TV, natural gas gets sold as pristine energy.

Montage of TV ads: Switching your appliances to clean, energy efficient gas can reduce your home's overall environmental footprint. Your planet will thank you for using clean-burning natural gas. To natural gas, it removes 3,000-plus pounds of carbon dioxide.

Robert Howarth: But that of course is only part of the greenhouse gas footprint.

Cornell University professor Robert Howarth. His new study is the first to quantify the whole carbon footprint for natural gas. He found it's more Bigfoot than Bambi. Because when you crack shale to get to the clean-burning fuel, out comes methane -- another greenhouse gas. He says that's worse than burning coal.

Howarth: We shouldn't proceed with this technology. It's just increasing our overall fossil fuel energy consumption.

So, if natural gas is not cleaner than coal, that means power plants will stop converting to it, the government will get rid of tax breaks for using it, and investor interest will slow down, right?

Sam Jaffe: I don't think so.

Sam Jaffe is with IDC Energy Insights. He says the real appeal of natural gas has never been the environmental benefit. It's the price.

Jaffe: It's the crack cocaine of the electric utility industry because it's so cheap right now, and it's such a compelling high.

Private-equity firms are biting, too. Today Blackstone put $1 billion into shale fields. Sam Jaffe says without government regulation of carbon emissions, there's no reason not to keep drilling. The energy equation will only change when the price of natural gas -- inevitably -- goes up.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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