Picture of a large LNG (Liquefied natural gas) tanker ship unloading its cargo at LNG terminal

Reality Check: US Natural Gas Is Not a “Cleaner” Alternative Fuel

Until we fix a leaky supply chain, US liquified natural gas comes with a major climate risk.

The recent White House decision to pause US liquefied natural gas (LNG) export permits in order to conduct an update of “the underlying analyses for authorizations” has been met with big questions from both sides of the political aisle — a reflection of America’s position as the world’s top producer and exporter of natural gas.

The White House cited several reasons for the update, including potential energy cost increases for US consumers, long-term supply concerns, and climate impacts. But a number of arguments have emerged on the other side of the debate: US job security, economic growth, and national security among them.

We’re not going to try and tackle all of those. But it’s worth setting the record straight on one often-repeated idea that won’t seem to go away: the idea that US LNG is somehow a “cleaner” fossil fuel, or a safer “bridge” to the net-zero emissions energy future. The research RMI and a number of our peers have undertaken arrives at the opposite conclusion, backed by objective calculations and thorough analysis.

The myth and the reality

Common understanding has been that gas, although undoubtedly a fossil fuel, is a more agreeable alternative to oil and coal because its carbon dioxide footprint is significantly smaller. And in the confines of a lab, that holds true: when burned to produce energy, gas produces less CO₂ than oil or coal.

But it’s in the complete gas supply chain — from extraction all the way to end uses — where gas’s climate credentials begin to crumble. Unlike coal, where most of the CO2 is emitted at the end of the supply chain during combustion for power generation, the gas supply chain has wide-ranging CO2 emissions that come from production and processing, transport, liquefaction, regasification, and different end uses. 

Gas isn’t just about CO₂ 

Methane is also a major climate factor. Gas is mostly made up of methane, a greenhouse gas with a climate-warming potency that is over 80 times higher than carbon dioxide in the near term. Meaning that if carbon dioxide wraps one warming blanket around the planet, methane piles on over 80 additional blankets that can’t be tossed off to cool down for at least 12–20 years. When gas leaks along the supply chain — whether from wells, pipelines, compressors, storage tanks, liquefaction equipment, stoves, or furnaces — it essentially superheats the climate. Methane can also be emitted from coal mines and through the oil supply chain.

So, how does this all come back to the question of the relative climate safety or risk of US LNG being fiercely debated these days in Senate chambers and op-eds? While the specifics of the resource and how it is handled matters, RMI’s analysis has found that if we don’t eliminate methane leakage almost entirely from the gas supply chain, its climate risk is on par with coal.

Cleaning up the US gas system can’t come a moment too soon: broader analysis and methane-detecting satellite observations have shown that methane leakage rates in various US gas fields and systems range widely from 0.6 percent to 66 percent.

Imagine how many more opportunities for methane to escape into the atmosphere we’re adding when the gas gets liquefied, pumped into LNG tanker storage tanks, and moved across the ocean, where the LNG gets regasified, and the gas again gets moved from the storage tanks into a whole other set of potentially leaky pipelines and operations. Not to mention the occasional well blow out, pipeline rupture, or accident at sea.

With longer supply chains come a greater likelihood of gas leaking and a greater need for measurable proof of action to cut leakage to near zero. The need to openly and verifiably certify gas system methane leakage below 0.2 percent is gaining consensus among scientists, governments, NGOs, and industry. And the world recognized this reality at COP28, setting a maximum leakage rate of 0.2 percent under the Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter. 

Fortunately, cutting methane emissions in the natural gas supply chain is relatively simple and cost-effective. Prohibiting gas venting and routine flaring (otherwise known as burning) and incorporating routine equipment fixes and upgrades into maintenance plans can significantly cut methane emissions from production sites. 

Emissions transparency throughout oil and natural gas supply chains can also help policymakers and industry leaders act to stop methane leakage and wasted gas. Industry action could also boost profits by earning premium pricing for gas with less than 0.2 percent methane leakage and avoiding regulatory fines like the Inflation Reduction Act’s Methane Fee.

Bringing transparency to the fossil fuel chain

RMI is on the hunt for public oil and gas activity data, including production volumes, equipment geolocations, and resource characteristics. This is how we calculate greenhouse gas emissions using our Oil Climate Index plus Gas (OCI+) web tool.

Unfortunately, much of this data is not transparent to RMI and society overall. Rather, this critical information is increasingly kept closely held by data aggregators and the oil and gas industry. Without this activity data, we cannot quantify methane leakage rates or calculate overall LNG emissions. 

RMI is also working with Carbon Mapper, which will launch the first two methane super-emitting satellites this year. All methane measurement data will be made public.  

Where we go from here

Even before the White House made its LNG decision, the writing was on the wall for US gas producers. Until we can know for sure that American gas production is leak-free, any claims of its climate credentials relative to other producers and fuels simply do not stand up to scrutiny.

The technology — and will — to understand the full climate impact of the US gas supply chain is already here. It’s now up to industry leaders and policymakers to be fully transparent and act.