Will western Colorado pay for cleaning up Denver’s air?

Not many Western Slope or southwest Colorado environmentalists are celebrating the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act (HB 1365) signed into law by Gov. Bill Ritter Monday. Unlike their Front Range counterparts, who helped pass the bill, environmentalists closer to the gas patch are concerned that Denver will solve its dirty air problem by adding to pollution in the West and Southwest.

Converting inefficient coal-burning power plants to natural gas would reduce Denver’s brown cloud. However, increasing natural gas production to fuel the plants would add to the methane, VOCs, diesel fumes, and other pollutants resulting from natural gas extraction.

Plans to reduce pollution by substituting natural gas for coal are based on the idea that gas is a clean fuel, while coal is the dirtiest of energy sources.

The dirty plume flowing from a smokestack obviously seems more polluting than the invisible vapor from natural gas combustion. But appearances can be deceiving. Natural gas pollutes not by burning, but by direct emission of methane into the air during production and transportation.

Energy Justice, a grassroots organization that tracks energy impacts on communities, states, “Since methane, the principle component of natural gas, is as much as 25 times as potent as CO2, if only 2 percent of natural gas moving through the pipeline leaks, the effect on climate change is thought to be equal to that of burning coal. Experts say that, in fact, 3-5 percent loss in transmission is normal, and up to 20 percent is known to happen.”

According to a report by Kevin Bullis in the MIT Technology Review, “a preliminary analysis suggests that natural gas could contribute far more to global warning than previously thought.”

Bullis bases his observation partially on the testimony of Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Though his immediate topic was the benefits of converting large trucks from diesel to natural gas, Howarth’s analysis has implications for plans to switch power generation from coal to gas.

Howarth’s conclusions reflect a preliminary analysis of the environmental impact of the CO2 emitted from the tailpipe compared to the methane released through “leaks” of natural gas in the production and transportation process.

When you factor this in, he told Congress,  “natural gas could be significantly worse than diesel,” emitting about 50 percent more grams of CO2 per megajoule of energy. “You’re aggravating global warming more if you switch,” he said.

Of more immediate interest to Colorado, Howarth also asserts that “natural gas could even rival greenhouse gas emissions from mining and burning coal — the dirtiest of fossil fuels.”

Howarth readily admits that his analysis is preliminary, and that he has already made some revisions to his original calculations.

Also, his conclusions on diesel differ from an MIT study released last year that found a small benefit from switching from diesel to natural gas. However, Bullis says, the report concluded “it might not be worth the cost or the hassle” to change.

Despite unanswered questions, Howarth stands behind his conclusion that the gap between natural gas and coal pollution is far smaller than thought. His testimony points directly to the question that troubles some Western Slope environmentalists: By converting old Front Range coal-burning power plants to natural gas, is HB 1365 solving Denver’s air pollution problem at the expense of air quality on the Western Slope?

Bullis’ closing remarks on Howarth’s ideas are well worth considerating before any plan favoring natural gas over other fossil fuels is implemented.

For all its shortcomings, Bullis writes, “Howarth’s analysis … points to a real need. Before Congress passes any bill promoting natural gas, a thorough study of the potential impact needs to be taken into account, including the energy it takes to obtain it.”

Ditto for Colorado. A thorough environmental impact statement that answers the questions Howarth raises is the least precaution the state should take before any coal to gas conversion is initiated.

For western Colorado, a few jobs in the gas industry is too high a price to pay for the equivalent pollution of three old, dirty power plants.

The atmosphere is not just about Denver, it is about the planet. The city needs to reduce its pollution, not simply to relocate it.

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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