Gas STAR has seen some success in pushing companies to use these capture tools. The EPA's 2010 greenhouse gas inventory, using 2008 data, shows that even though more gas is being produced from more wells, total emissions from that production have decreased by more than 26 percent since 1990, mostly due to the progress of Gas STAR. But while these figures demonstrate that Gas STAR is effective in lowering the annual rate of emissions, the EPA's new figures essentially move the starting point, and, when recalculated, 2008 emissions are now understood to have been 53 percent higher than emissions in 1990.
That doesn't mean the program isn't working—it is. It simply means that the road to making reductions significant enough to affect the rate of climate change is much longer than expected.
The EPA now reports that emissions from conventional hydraulic fracturing are 35 times higher than the agency had previously estimated. It also reports that emissions from the type of hydraulic fracturing being used in the nation's bountiful new shale gas reserves, like the Marcellus, are almost 9,000 times higher than it had previously calculated, a figure that begins to correspond with Robert Howarth's research at Cornell.
Clean Enough to Count On?
Getting a solid estimate of the total lifecycle emissions from natural gas is critical not only to President Obama's—and Congress'–decisions about the nation's energy and climate strategy, but also to future planning for the nation's utilities.
Even small changes in the lifecycle emissions figures for gas would eventually affect policy and incentives for the utility industry, and ultimately make a big difference in how gas stacks up against its alternatives.
Rogers, the Duke executive, says the country's large promised reserves of natural gas must also hold up for gas to prove beneficial, in terms of both cost and climate. If domestic reserves turn out to be smaller than predicted, or the nation runs out of gas and turns to liquefied gas imported from overseas, then the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas would be almost equal to coal, Jaramillo pointed out in her 2007 lifecycle analysis, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology . That's because the additional processing and shipping of liquefied gas would put even more greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere.
"In the 60's we put a needle in one arm—it was called oil," Rogers said. "If the shale gas doesn't play out as predicted, and we build a lot of gas plants in this country, and we don't drill offshore, we're going to be putting the needle in the other arm and it's going to be called gas."
The utilities are in a bind because they have to build new power plants to meet the nation's demand for energy, while anticipating an as-yet-undefined set of federal climate and emissions regulations that they believe are inevitable. Do they build new gas-fired plants, which can cost $2 billion and take three years to bring online? Or do they wait for proven systems that can capture carbon from coal-fired plants and sequester it underground?
If carbon sequestration works, coal-based power emissions could drop by 90 percent, said Nick Akins, president of American Electric Power, the nation's largest electric utility and the number-one emitter of greenhouse gas pollution. That suggests to Akins that natural gas may not be the solution to the nation's energy needs, but rather the transitional fuel that bridges the gap to cleaner technologies.
"Going from a 100 percent CO2 emitter to a 50 percent solution when you could go beyond that is something we need to turn our attention to," said Akins. "If there is a 90 percent solution for coal, and other forms like nuclear, and renewables, then obviously you want to push in that direction as well."