Three Considerations for Modeling Natural Gas System Methane Emissions in Life Cycle Assessment

Natural gas is a fossil fuel accounting for about 30% of US primary energy consumption. Climate change is one of the primary environmental issues associated with natural gas use: natural gas combustion releases carbon dioxide. A less emphasized issue is that natural gas is mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). The climate impact of natural gas use is thus sensitive to the amount of methane that escapes from the natural gas system unburned. We call attention to three considerations for modeling natural gas-related methane emissions in life cycle assessment (LCA). First, natural gas system methane leakage is inconsistently characterized and likely systematically underestimated by commonly used life cycle inventory (LCI) databases. Second, studies are often imprecise in assumptions about process boundaries. This matters because not all natural gas uses rely on the same infrastructure and induce the same methane leakage. Third, there is not yet a stable estimate for the global warming potential (GWP) of methane. Newer estimates tend to be larger, which further exacerbates the underestimation of GHG impacts from natural gas systems. Data uncertainty is common in LCA, but natural gas-related methane emissions deserve special attention due to their influence on a decision-relevant parameter (GHG intensity) in product systems across the economy.
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