Activist Funded Report Egregiously Mischaracterizes Climate Benefits of Natural Gas

A new report commissioned by the anti-fossil fuel activist group Friends of the Earth Europe (FOEe) and written by authors from the Tyndall Manchester Climate Change Research Center claims Europe will fail to meet its Paris Climate Agreement goals unless it dramatically reduces natural gas use and ends fossil fuel use altogether by 2035.

This conclusion is ironic considering just a few days prior to this report’s publication, United Nations Energy Programme chief Erik Solheim said, “In all likelihood, the United States of America will live up to its Paris commitment, not because of the White House, but because of the private sector.”

Translation: Natural gas. In fact, the U.S. Energy Information Administration credits two-thirds of U.S. energy-related CO2 reductions since 2005 to increased natural gas use for electricity generation.

Suffice it to say, in order to support a conclusion that calls for dramatically reducing use of the fuel most responsible for the U.S. leading the world in carbon reductions since 2000, the authors of this study had to downplay or flatly ignore the substantial benefits natural gas use and instead perpetuate an irrational “Keep it in the Ground” agenda. Because of this, it’s clear that this study is not meant inform on an environmental issue, but instead to blatantly oppose natural gas and fossil fuel use.

Climate Benefits of Natural Gas

Numerous studies published over the past several years have pointed to natural gas a key driver of CO2 emission level declines worldwide. Because of this, the transition to natural gas – which emits 50 to 60 percent less CO2 than other fossil fuels – has greatly reduced overall emissions. For example, recent EIA data show that increased switching to gas-fired electricity generation between 2005 and 2016 has led to an over 2 billion metric ton decrease in U.S. CO2 emissions – almost twice the decline provided by renewable energy sources.

 

According to EIA:

“Between 2005 and 2016, CO2 emissions declined by a cumulative 3,176 MMmt as a result of these two factors. Of this total, 2,007 MMmt can be attributed to the shift in fossil fuels to natural gas, and 1,169 MMmt can be attributed to the increase in non-fossil generation sources.” (emphasis added)

Further, not only has growth in natural gas generation helped decrease CO2 emissions in the United States, without its use it is estimated emissions would have continued to increase as the economy and energy demand grew over the past decade. According to research published in September from the UK-based climate group Carbon Brief,

“Without the effects of gas, wind and reduced electricity use, CO2 emissions from the sector could have been expected to continue increasing in line with past trends. By 2016, electricity sector CO2 emissions would then have been almost 46% higher than they are today.”

This benefit is not limited to the United States, however. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in its latest report that switching to cleaner burning, more efficient natural gas generation worldwide could cut average global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in half. According to the report:

“GHG emissions from energy supply can be reduced significantly by replacing current world average coal-fired power plants with modern, highly efficient natural gas combined-cycle (NGCC) power plants or combined heat and power (CHP) plants, provided that natural gas is available and the fugitive emissions associated with its extraction and supply are low or mitigated (robust evidence, high agreement). Lifecycle assessments indicate a reduction of specific GHG emissions of approximately 50 % for a shift from a current world-average coal power plant to a modern NGCC plant depending on natural gas upstream emissions.”

This list could continue, as scientists overwhelmingly point to CO2 reduction as the main concern in reaching climate goals. In fact, the authors of this study state this very point, noting:

“Whilst mitigating short lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) such as methane is important, it must not detract from eliminating long-lived greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide.”

To this, the question to the authors becomes: If efforts “must not detract” from eliminating carbon dioxide, how does attacking natural gas – a means of doing just that – make any sense?

Oil and Gas Methane Emissions Rates are Declining, Too

According to the Tyndall report, while methane is less impactful on climate in the long-term relative to CO2, “persistently high” methane emissions along the production chain would negate the climate advantage of natural gas over other fuels that producer greater amounts of CO2. As the report states:

“Carbon dioxide from combustion is the dominant contributor to the long-term climate change impact of natural gas. Methane has a much greater warming effect than carbon dioxide per unit of emissions released but its atmospheric lifetime is short, only about a decade. However, persistently high emissions of methane would replenish this loss and maintain this initial warming effect.”

Thankfully, studies have shown that global methane emission rates are remaining low and even declining. Just last month, a preview from an upcoming International Energy Agency (IEA) report found that with the current estimated global leakage rate of 1.7 percent from natural gas production and use, the fuel still has greater climate advantages than other forms of fuel – even over the long term. As the report notes:

“… [T]aking into account our estimates of methane emissions from both gas and coal, on average, gas generates far fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than coal when generating heat or electricity, regardless of the time frame considered.”

The average methane leakage rate in the United States is even lower at 1.2 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), thanks to improved production and transportation technology, as well as increased monitoring efforts from producers. For example, methane emissions in the top producing natural gas shale region, the Appalachian Basin, dropped 63 percent from 2011 to 2016. Overall, the amount of methane emission per unit of natural gas produced in the U.S. has decreased by 46 percent since 1990.

Considering European countries are equally developed economically as the United States, it’s not difficult to imagine methane leakage rates for the region would at least around that global average rate of 1.7 percent – still well under the rate at which the climate advantages of natural gas are negated.

Despite the established mainstream scientific consensus that oil and gas methane leakage rates are low and getting lower, the authors claim that oil and gas development is responsible for the recent increase in overall global methane emissions.

As The Guardian reported,

“Their report, which is based on original modelling and a meta-analysis of 250 gas supply chain studies, logs a ‘sustained rise’ since 2006 in atmospheric methane concentrations. These are now “at the top end of IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) scenarios” and running at unsustainable levels, according to the study.”

But the conclusion that oil and gas is responsible for this global rise in methane emissions has been thoroughly debunked. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that atmospheric methane carrying an isotope associated with oil and gas production, known as carbon 13, has dropped “significantly” since 2007. Instead, NOAA concluded that “agricultural and wetland emissions” are the main drivers behind increased atmospheric methane emissions. As the agency’s website states:

“NOAA observations, analysis, and field research campaigns suggest the increase (in global methane emissions) is being driven by natural and agricultural emissions, not fossil fuels.”

“Keep It In The Ground” Agenda

Despite the substantial declines in U.S. CO2 emissions thanks to natural gas switching, the report claims CO2 emissions stemming from natural gas combustion are a bigger concern than methane leaks. As the authors write:

“Leakage rates affect the relative contribution of methane to the climate change impact of natural gas supply chains. They do not, however, dominate the long-term temperature change caused by a given quantity of natural gas production, as it is the CO2 emissions that persist in the atmosphere over the long term.”

Attacking a fuel source that has helped greatly decrease CO2 emissions because of its CO2 is confusing at best, and also exposes this study for what it is: a direct effort to end natural gas and fossil fuel use. Other examples throughout this report further prove this point, such as the authors’ odd objection to using “negative emissions technologies” (NETs) – such as carbon capture technologies – to aid in meeting climate goals:

“To deliver on the Paris commitments, policy makers need a balanced portfolio of CO2 mitigation scenarios with ‘negative emissions technologies’ only included in the exotic minority”

By arguing against the use of NETs, these authors are clearly showing that climate mitigation is not their main concern, and instead ending the use of fossil fuels in any capacity is their ultimate objective. The authors themselves state this very argument in the report:

“The ubiquitous and global-scale inclusion of highly speculative ‘negative emission technologies’ (NETs) in global and national mitigation scenarios is dangerously weighting the policy-terrain in favour of technocratic only responses. This endemic bias unreasonably lends support for the continued and long-term use of gas and oil whilst effectively closing down more challenging but essential debates over lifestyles, profound social-economic change and deeper penetration of genuinely decarbonised energy supply.” (emphasis added)

This intent is further solidified by the fact that the authors plainly states that not only should fossil use end, no additional resources should be developed:

“The Paris 2°C and equity commitments, buttressed with the IPCC’s carbon budgets, demand a minimum reduction in EU energy-only carbon emissions of around 95% by 2035 (c.f. 2015), with absolute decarbonisation of its energy system a decade later. In this context and assuming an immediate 12% p.a. mitigation path, (or accelerated mitigation to around 18% by 2023; see Appendix A), there is categorically no role for bringing additional fossil fuel reserves, including gas, into production.” (emphasis added)

Pushing a “Keep it in the Ground” agenda under the guise of informing the discussion on climate shouldn’t be surprising, considering this research was back by FOEe. The group, whose campaigns include “Fossil Free Europe” and “No Room for Gas,” has long been active in perpetuating a “Keep it in the Ground” agenda, and this is not the first time the group has tried to spread misinformation to achieve its goals.

In January of this year, the UK’s advertising watchdog, Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), found that FOEe was spreading false information about hydraulic fracturing in an attempt to scare residents and build opposition to the production technique. ASA ruled that FOEe must “not make claims about the likely effect of fracking on the health of local populations, drinking water, or property prices in the absence of adequate evidence.”

Conclusion

While this report claims to inform the climate discussion surrounding the Paris Agreement, in actuality is functions to promote an anti-fossil fuel campaign by grossly mischaracterizing the climate advantages of natural gas and instead puts forward conclusions that are as unfeasible as they are irrational.

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