Natural gas is seen by many as the future of American energy: a fuel that can provide energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the process. However, there has also been confusion about the climate implications of increased use of natural gas for electric power and transportation. We propose and illustrate the use of technology warming potentials as a robust and transparent way to compare the cumulative radiative forcing created by alternative technologies fueled by natural gas and oil or coal by using the best available estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from each fuel cycle (i.e., production, transportation and use). We find that a shift to compressed natural gas vehicles from gasoline or diesel vehicles leads to greater radiative forcing of the climate for 80 or 280 yr, respectively, before beginning to produce benefits. Compressed natural gas vehicles could produce climate benefits on all time frames if the well-to-wheels CH4 leakage were capped at a level 45–70% below current estimates. By contrast, using natural gas instead of coal for electric power plants can reduce radiative forcing immediately, and reducing CH4 losses from the production and transportation of natural gas would produce even greater benefits. There is a need for the natural gas industry and science community to help obtain better emissions data and for increased efforts to reduce methane leakage in order to minimize the climate footprint of natural gas.

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The authors acknowledge helpful reviews and comments from G. Marland, J. Milford, B. O’Neill, T. Skone, C. Sweeney, and P. Tans. We also thank S. Marwah for sharing analyses of Fort Worth emissions measurements. Funding for R.A.A. and S.P.H. was provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

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Published in

Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Vol. 109 | No. 17
April 24, 2012
PubMed: 22493226


Submission history

Published online: April 9, 2012
Published in issue: April 24, 2012


The authors acknowledge helpful reviews and comments from G. Marland, J. Milford, B. O’Neill, T. Skone, C. Sweeney, and P. Tans. We also thank S. Marwah for sharing analyses of Fort Worth emissions measurements. Funding for R.A.A. and S.P.H. was provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation.


*Challenges also exist in the quantification of CH4 emissions from the extraction of coal. We use the term “leakage” for simplicity and define it broadly to include all CH4 emissions in the natural gas supply, both fugitive leaks as well as vented emissions.
This represents an uncertainty range between −19% and +30% of natural gas system emissions. For CH4 from petroleum systems (35% of which we assign to the natural gas supply) the uncertainty is −24% to +149%; however, this is only a minor effect because the portion of natural gas supply that comes from oil wells is less than 20%.
One-hundred-two times on a mass basis. This value accounts for methane’s direct radiative forcing and a 40% enhancement because of the indirect forcing by ozone and stratospheric water vapor (10).
The CH4 from operation of a CNG automobile was estimated to be 20 times the value for gasoline vehicles (11), which is approximately 20% of the well-to-pump CH4 leakage on a kg/mmBtu basis. This assumption deserves much further scrutiny.
Our estimate that current well-to-wheels leakage is 3.0% of gas produced assumes that 2.4% of gas produced is lost between the well and the local distribution system (based on EPA’s 2011 GHG emission inventory) and that 0.6% is due to emissions during refueling and from the vehicle itself. For further discussion of the climatic implication of natural gas vehicles see (12).
EPA’s GHG inventory suggests leakage from natural gas processing and transmission is 0.6% of gas produced, meaning production leakage must be greater than 2.6% for the total fuel cycle leakage of a power plant receiving fuel from a transmission pipeline to exceed 3.2%.
**Sites with compressor engines were excluded due to the contractor’s assumption that all engines in the City were uncontrolled, which leads to erroneous emission estimates.
Routine emissions do not include such occasional events as well completions and blowdowns. Only 203 of the 254 sites had data for gas production. An Excel spreadsheet containing the Fort Worth data and our calculations is provided in Dataset S1.
Emissions query performed on December 5, 2011, using the Data and Maps feature of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Markets Web page (http://camddataandmaps.epa.gov/gdm/).



Ramón A. Alvarez1 [email protected]
Environmental Defense Fund, 301 Congress Ave Suite 1300, Austin, TX 78701;
Stephen W. Pacala1 [email protected]
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, 106A Guyot Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544;
James J. Winebrake
College of Liberal Arts, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY 14623;
William L. Chameides
School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708; and
Steven P. Hamburg
Environmental Defense Fund, 18 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02108


To whom correspondence may be addressed. E-mail: [email protected] or [email protected].
Contributed by Stephen W. Pacala, February 13, 2012 (sent for review December 21, 2011)
Author contributions: R.A.A., S.W.P., and S.P.H. designed research; R.A.A. performed research; R.A.A., S.W.P., and S.P.H. analyzed data; and R.A.A., S.W.P., J.J.W., W.L.C., and S.P.H. wrote the paper.

Competing Interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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