Does Propane “Wear the Green”?

A pair of leprechauns at a previous St. Paddy's Day parade in New York. (image: Shibula via flickr.com)

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and New York City is in celebration mode. There is a parade along Fifth Avenue and plenty of NYPD officers are patrolling the streets for shenanigans. Plus, there’s a lot of wearing o’ the green. (And pinching o’ the people who are not wearing o’ the green.)

Which prompted a question from our co-worker Rick this morning: How green is propane?

That’s a toughie. “Green” still exists as a vague suggestion of environmental-friendliness rather than a set of precise standards. (Is a Prius green?) But here are two considerations.

Is it easier on the earth? Yes. The majority of propane gallons consumed in the U.S. is produced domestically (around 90-percent and rising, by several accounts). That translates to a smaller footprint in transporting it to customers — not to mention the benefit of sidestepping global petro-politics. And in matters of combustion, propane matches up favorably on toxic emissions against most other fuels, including gasoline, heating oil, diesel fuel, or coal. At a recent discussion of autogas* vehicles, a panel of industry speakers said that propane’s greenhouse emissions are 15- to 25-percent below gasoline’s. The Environmental Protection Agency has labeled it a “clean alternative fuel.”

Is it sustainable? Not right now. Propane is a fossil fuel, and only produced as a byproduct from processing oil and natural gas. So like both, it could be tapped out like a Guinness keg at midnight tonight. That said, its non-renewable status might change. Like a lot of the energy alchemy going on in labs right now, scientists are looking at alternative sources for LPG, including one international venture trying to coax propane out of genetically-modified algae. “It’s theoretical,” says one scientist on the study. But the group thinks it can put its algae-propane in a car by 2020.

Does this make propane green? Surely green enough not to get pinched today.

PS. The retailer AmeriGas touts more of propane’s green resume on its blog: here.

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*Autogas = propane in a car’s gas tank.