Environment

Is Gas Really 'Twice as Clean' as Coal?

The gas industry makes its product look more virtuous by distorting a single fact.

Over the past year, the American Natural Gas Association has been running an aggressive public relations campaign. The central claim, widely heralded, is that natural gas is "twice as clean as coal." With that, the gas industry has invented a new virtue for its product through the trick of inverting and slightly stretching one fact about gas: that its carbon dioxide emissions are 55 percent of coal's emissions per kilowatt of electricity generated.

For an industry that wants to boost sales of natural gas, the "twice as clean" pitch is a much better slogan than, say, "Gas: It emits more than half as much carbon dioxide as coal, our worst greenhouse fuel!"

With its "twice as clean" claim, ANGA is venturing into previously unexplored public-relations territory. Will others follow? Will Burger King start touting its double cheeseburger (500 calories, 29 grams of fat) as being "more than twice as healthful" as a Wendy's Bacon Deluxe Triple Cheeseburger (1140 calories, 71 grams fat)? Why not? With good news in short supply these days, it seems this technique could be employed in many areas of our national life to provide much needed good cheer. To make anything look good, simply find something that's worse, turn a fraction into a multiple, and you've turned your liabilities upside down! For example:

Jobs: Coal-mining disasters in West Virginia, Chile and China this year reminded us that mining is one of the most dangerous occupations. But is it really so bad? Based on occupational fatality rates, mining is twice as safe as the agriculture/forestry/fishing sector.

Environment: Fresno, California has the fourth worst polluted air of any U.S. city, according to the American Lung Association. But look on the bright side. Air in Fresno is twice as clean as it is in the number-one polluted city of Los Angeles when you compare average ozone levels.

Health care: A prescription for Cerezyme, a drug for treating a dreadful condition called Gaucher disease, costs a patient $200,000 per year. That may seem outrageous unless you think of it as being twice as cheap as a $409,000-per-year prescription for Soliris (a treatment for an immune disorder called paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria that affects 8,000 Americans).

Of course, you can always go beyond "twice as good:"

Foreign policy: The war in Afghanistan is becoming more deadly all the time, but at an average of 150 U.S. troop deaths per year since 2001, the Afghan war is still almost four times as harmless to our military as the war in Iraq, which has killed 590 American troops annually.

Energy policy: The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which dumped about half a million barrels of crude oil into the sea, no longer looks so bad. We now know it was 10 times as eco-friendly as BP's Deepwater Horizon spill.

Financial reform: To date, seven people have gone to jail in connection with a massive Ponzi scheme run by Minnesota business owner Tom Petters. He was convicted last year for cheating his investors out of a whopping $3.5 billion. But when you think about it, Petters was 18 times as honest as the now-imprisoned Ponzi artist Bernie Madoff, who took his investors for almost $65 billion!

The "twice as clean" fallacy also completely ignores other symptoms of our increasing natural-gas addiction. Methane, the chief component of natural gas, has more than 20 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide; as a result, leakage from mining and distribution of natural gas has the annual greenhouse impact of more than 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Then there's the crisis now brewing over massive water pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing, the method used to get gas out of lucrative shale deposits. Coal mining has its high-profile ecological and human disasters, and now the destruction caused by gas mining, especially in the shale deposits, is becoming apparent.

On the defensive and desperate, national environmental groups have been promoting gas as an antidote to coal. But America needs to be curbing or cutting its consumption of all fossil fuels, not encouraging greater use of some of them. ANGA would claim it wants the accelerated sales of gas in order to displace coal use (just as tobacco companies used to argue their advertising was aimed at luring current smokers into switching brands, not inducing young people to start smoking.) But history shows that increased consumption of one fossil fuel doesn't bring decreased use of others. For example, U.S. Department of Energy projections show consumption of coal and gas rising in parallel between now and 2030.

If such trends aren't reversed, temperatures on Earth could rise by as much as six degrees Celsius by the end of the century. But don't let that bother you too much. We'll still be 22 times as cool here as we'd be on Venus!

Stan Cox's latest book is 'Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World.'