COW may have quit coal, but we have replaced it with another dirty habit: natural gas. The switch was official as of March 1st, 2013. While the decision to switch had a lot of financial bearing, some will remember the 2011 student protest at 7am to demand action: getting rid of coal, the dirtiest energy of them all. The protest was respectful, organized, and well received. The students ran a successful campaign because they were heard by trustees, and the trustees acted quickly in response. Since then, the physical plant has been upgrading boilers, coolers and everything in between. As we have made this transition, I hear concerns from many environmentally-aware students about the new dangers presented by technological advances in hydraulic fracturing, and the lack of regulation that came with the natural gas boom.
Don’t get me wrong, coal is really, really bad. Not only does it emit unimaginable amounts CO2, but also a slew of air pollutants that we will simply stop emitting by making the switch. This across-the-board emissions reduction will reduce EPA emissions fees, maintenance costs, and health risks to coal plant employees (making this a worthy investment for the College in my book). The trouble is, the emissions reduction is limited to the point of combustion.
Natural gas does emit significantly less air pollutants compared to coal when burned, but that is not the only point of emissions for natural gas. From extraction (flowback releases its dissolved methane when it reaches the surface) to transportation (methane leaks from pipelines, 2% to 9%), these emissions add up. Now that we have more of the full picture, natural gas is comparable to coal in greenhouse effects.
As our college moves forward, and continues to burn natural gas, we must acknowledge that we have moved from lead and mercury emissions to constant methane emissions (25x the greenhouse effects of CO2); mountaintop removal to fracking; one quickly disappearing, increasingly dangerous fossil fuel to another. Don’t kid yourself and say it’s the lesser of two evils; it will save us money, and it is easier to switch to clean energy from a natural gas system than from a coal system. Now we are presented with a great opportunity, I can only hope that the money saved will be invested in a truly clean energy as soon as possible.