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Half-hearted fanatic: Bridge to nowhere?
Natural gas not as clean as many people believe
shoemaker
Sloan Shoemaker

Natural gas is touted as the clean-burning bridge fuel to a renewable energy future. But how clean is it really and how long is the bridge?

Black Hills Energy supplies the Roaring Fork Valley with natural gas to heat our homes and cook our food. Doing business as Rocky Mountain Natural Gas, BH operates the Wolf Creek Storage Field on the White River National Forest south of Ski Sunlight along Forest Service Road 300.

“Wolf Creek Storage Field is a depleted gas field that is now used as underground natural gas storage to serve Black Hills Energy customers in the Roaring Fork Valley. Natural gas is injected into the field during the summer and extracted during high demand winter months for use by natural gas customers in the region.”

See https://www.blackhillsenergy.com/node/118763#.XGB5l9F7mV5 

To its credit, BH has invested millions in upgrading and replacing old, crumbling equipment in the storage field. This is a great improvement over the leaky, unsafe, corroded and antiquated equipment that had been there for decades. 

That’s a good thing, right?

It’s true that utility-scale electrical generation using natural gas produces half the CO2 of coal. Looked at through this narrow lens, natural gas is a great step in the right direction.

However, that’s not the whole story.

Producing and delivering natural gas requires a complex network of equipment and pipelines, from wellheads to compressors to pipelines to storage facilities. And leaks occur throughout this chain. NG is primarily methane, 84 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2 in a 20-year period.

As long as this leakage is less than 3 percent of the overall NG production, then the natural gas bridge is net climate positive relative to coal. However, greater than 4-percent leakage makes NG worse than coal. Researchers monitoring gas fields across the U.S. find that gas leakage is much greater than the 1-percent industry claims or the EPA estimates.

Using a mobile methane detector, researchers found that the Denver Basin gas field in northwest Colorado has a 4-percent leakage rate. The Uintah Basin in Utah has 11-percent leakage and the LA Basin in CA comes in at 17 percent.

See http://theyearsproject.com/story/chasing-methane/.

These production field leaks added to the countless mini leaks across 1.6 million miles of pipeline across the U.S. make the NG bridge to the clean energy future look more like speedway over a climate cliff.   

As long as we are on this natural gas bridge, we want it to safely and cleanly meet our energy needs while delivering us to the low/no-carbon future. The trouble is, the more capital committed to maintain and upgrade our natural gas infrastructure, the longer these sunk costs delay investment in the clean energy on the other end of the bridge and delay the widespread transition to renewables. Every investment in natural gas today extends the bridge out of sight over the horizon … to a cliff.

It’s time to land the bridge and bring the clean energy future into the present. While BH’s investments in a reliable energy source for the RFV are commendable, it’s time to have a larger community conversation around landing the bridge and moving to a zero-carbon energy system. 

We clearly can’t look to a federal government full of climate change deniers to take the lead.

Fortunately, local communities, municipalities and states are stepping into this gap and taking the lead on policies that begin to address the scale of change needed.

What more can we do here locally?

Ought we follow California’s lead requiring all new homes to have solar panels? Surely that’s too much government for some and not enough for others. Nonetheless, we should have a robust community dialogue about landing the natural gas bridge and finally manifesting the clean energy future it’s supposed to deliver on the other side.

And fercrissakes, if we can’t do it in a place like the RFV rich with the intellectual capital of renewable energy think tanks, abundant sunshine and the short straight-line connection to climate impacts on our snow-based economy, we’re screwed.


Arriving in 1984, Sloan has lived in communities throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, finally putting down roots and raising a family in Carbondale. Having recently stepped down as Wilderness Workshop’s Executive Director after 20-plus years, he’s still wondering what he’s going to be when he grows up. This column may be a start