Rethinking methane

March 7, 2016
Renewable natural gas: the near-zero emissions fueling solution

For many years, environmental activists and air quality regulators advocated for the increased use of natural gas as an alternative to coal and nuclear in power generation and to petroleum-derived fuels in transportation. In fact, most of the recent reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to switching from coal to natural gas in power production. However, attitudes towards natural gas began to change about 10 years ago when technologies to effectively extract natural gas from local shale formations—a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”—became widely used.

Although the U.S. was able to dramatically increase its domestic supply of natural gas, fracking became the target of opposition, as questions were raised regarding water quality, seismic, and land conservation impacts. Most recently, concerns have been raised about the near-term greenhouse consequences of leaks of methane, a powerful climate altering compound, from the production, transportation, and distribution of natural gas.

Given this recent history, emerging opposition to the increased use of methane may be understood, but it is shortsighted. The U.S. faces the daunting challenge of continuing economic growth while simultaneously mitigating the triple threats of smog, toxic air contaminants, and climate change.

While progress has been made on all three fronts, each of these dangers continue to loom large in public consciousness and on lawmakers’ policymaking agenda.

Even though smog has lessened, most urban areas have yet to meet ozone standards set in 1979, let alone the new standards set by the U.S. EPA in October 2015. Exposure to toxic diesel exhaust has diminished yet still remains a major public health threat. Between them, smog and toxic air contaminants are estimated to kill over 200,000 Americans every year, while air pollution from motor vehicles alone is projected to send 53,000 people to an early death each year.

Pressure is building to make massive and sweeping changes to meet environmental goals, and our transportation system is an essential piece of the puzzle. Furthermore, natural gas as a transportation fuel will be critical to achieving these objectives. Therefore, it is vital that we halt deteriorating opinions and rethink our attitudes toward methane.

How can we continue using methane while reducing negative impact? By aggressively displacing prehistoric methane with “contemporary” methane. The increased use of contemporary methane, also known as renewable methane, allows us to recover, reuse and recycle the carbon already in the atmosphere, such as the CH4 that is naturally produced by the treatment of wastewater, municipal solid waste, and agricultural processes, which will help offset the consumption of prehistoric methane.

Harnessing biomethane not only creates the opportunity to sustainably manage waste products, but it also provides the feedstock for renewable hydrogen. If we are to take full advantage of the air quality and climate benefits of fuel cell technology—the commercialization of which is essential to the deployment of zero-emissions alternatives to diesel in heavy-duty and high-horsepower equipment—we will need to dramatically increase supplies of renewable hydrogen and methane.

Renewable natural gas is an important and essential energy resource. Fleets and transportation stakeholders can learn more about this critical energy source at the second annual Rethink Methane Symposium, slated for June 29-30 in Sacramento, CA, that will explore methane as a solution to our nation’s sustainable energy, environmental protection, and economic development goals.

About the Author

Cliff Gladstein | President

Cliff Gladstein is president of Gladstein, Neandross & Associates (GNA), the clean transportation and energy consulting firm that organizes the Alternative Clean Transportation (ACT) Expo. With a 93% success rate, GNA has secured more than $230 million in grants for AFV projects. Learn more at www.gladstein.org and www.actexpo.com.

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