California’s Meth Problem

Meet methane, the magic molecule that makes natural gas burn.

Climate scientists had high hopes for methane once. In the early days of America’s fracking bonanza, natural gas looked like an eleventh-hour miracle, a fuel to finally free us from our hopeless dependence on coal. Not that natural gas is climate-friendly — it’s a fossil fuel with a familiar byproduct: carbon dioxide — but coal power plants produce 76 percent more of it. The sudden abundance of not-so-bad energy might just have powered the transition to renewable energy.

That would have been great, but we might have lost our heads a little in our gusto to cash in on this ancient buried treasure, almost as if we learned nothing from Brendan Fraser’s misadventures in The Mummy Part I. And our prospects now could be worse than ever, like Brendan Frasier after The Mummy Part II.

Here’s why:

Natural gas does burn cleaner than coal, but unburned it’s a greenhouse gas on its own, and a powerful one. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, warms the planet 25 times faster than carbon dioxide over a century. Natural gas would turn out to be worse than coal if just 3 percent of it leaks.

Why not use technology to prevent methane leaks? The fossil fuel companies seem pretty careful; we’ve been drilling oil forever and it never spills except for a couple thousand times.

That’s a great idea, but it doesn’t really work with fracking. Basically — and we’re sure this seemed like a great idea at the time — fracking works by putting a lot of bombs in the ground to blow up the millions of years of material that has kept it all down there, like opening a bottle of champaign with a hammer.

But surely we can’t be leaking that much methane, right?

No, quite the opposite. We don’t know how much we’re leaking, because the equipment we use is faulty and we have no idea how many leaks there really are, but we do know it’s more than the estimates. And we know that the amount we leak right now is enough to undercut our climate progress big time. In fact, the amount of methane we lost in 2014 is the equivalent of running 251 coal power plants.

Why is no one talking about this??

Good question. Let’s change that. In the following weeks, we’re releasing a six-part series to help illuminate what we do know about methane — The Climate, The Culprit, The Victims, The Health, The Location, and The Solution.

Join us every Tuesday to watch a new video.

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First up: The Climate.