Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Is Gas Really Better Than Coal?

By Simon Grose

Despite the best current knowledge and intentions we could be accelerating climate change.

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While conflict between mainstream science and climate change sceptics dominates public discourse, attention is diverted from a more important issue: are measures deemed to slow global warming actually effective?

One key assumption is that replacing coal with gas as a fossil fuel for electricity generation is a good move because burning gas produces approximately half the amount of CO2 per unit of primary energy compared with burning coal.

Researchers from Southern Cross University recently inflicted a small puncture in that assumption by sampling methane levels in southern Queensland coal seam gas fields. They found levels higher than beyond the gas fields (see p.8), indicating that methane – a more potent greenhouse gas than the CO2 that would be emitted if the methane was burnt – was leaking from the valves and pipes.

This provoked media attention, umbrage from the gas industry and calls from the Greens and others for more research. A year earlier, such research was published in Climate Change Letters by Tom Wigley, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Adelaide and senior research associate at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research.

While the SCU research provided indicative data, Wigley’s work aimed to compare the overall warming effects of emissions from coal and gas. Unlike emissions from gas-fired plants, emissions from coal-...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (