Trick question: Coal or Natural Gas, which is a cleaner energy?

Posted By on June 17, 2014

thomasfanningceosouthernWhile listening to CNBC’s Squawkbox yesterday morning, Southern Company’s CEO Thomas Fanning sees exporting U.S. energy as economically a best path forward. The strategy is not without debate and hits opposition from both sides – the anti-fossil fuel greens and conservatives wanting to preserve our nation’s natural resources for America’s future. That argument aside, one of the more controversial statements Mr. Fanning made was that “we can combust coal with a carbon footprint less than natural gas.”

CNBC Squawkbox – Thomas Fanning (mp3)

I’ve heard the argument that when factoring in the extraction process that we are currently using that natural gas isn’t as environmentally clean as we think (debatable science), but do find it difficult to believe that factoring in the full lifecycle of coal (scrubbers, chemical treatments, disposal and overall cost) that one can conclude that coal is a better choice than natural gas? That said, I’m not against using coal in the cleanest way possible … or encouraging those countries who only have coal as an energy choice – eg. China.

While combustion of natural gas does produce carbon dioxide, it produces about 30 percent less than oil and 45 percent less than coal, and natural gas doesn’t produce ash particles like coal and oil do, which adds to air pollution. Though it doesn’t have as much of an effect on global warming per unit compared to other greenhouse gases, it is by far the most abundant greenhouse gas in our atmosphere — and reducing carbon dioxide emissions has been the focus of curbing the greenhouse effect.

Fracking and Methane

So if natural gas is less harmful to the ozone than other fossil fuels, why are recent studies saying otherwise? The destructive side effects of natural gas occur before it even makes it to the pipes that carry it to users; it’s in the most commonly used and economical method of extracting natural gas, known as “fracking.” Hydraulic fracturing uses high-pressured water to “fracture” the shale rocks where natural gas is trapped.

During the fracking process, small amounts of methane are released directly into the atmosphere. And methane is considered more dangerous to the environment than carbon dioxide because it heats the Earth. Despite the fact that the methane breaks down relatively quickly so it doesn’t remain a heat source for long — unlike carbon dioxide, which can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years — it’s still thought of the more harmful of the two.



Desultory - des-uhl-tawr-ee, -tohr-ee

  1. lacking in consistency, constancy, or visible order, disconnected; fitful: desultory conversation.
  2. digressing from or unconnected with the main subject; random: a desultory remark.