It is true that burning natural gas produces fewer GHGs than burning smelly, dirty coal or oil. But that’s just half the story. Gas’s reputation took a major hit in 2011 when Cornell professor, Robert Howarth, published a study arguing that the upstream emissions during drilling, transporting and processing were much higher than those claimed by the oil and gas industry. This was especially true for the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas where, he said, drilling took much longer with more time for fugitive gas to escape and “blowbacks” occurred as gas rushed to the surface before the well could be capped. He pointed out that prior studies had used estimates of fugitive gas emissions of conventional gas wells provided by oil and gas executives dating back to 1996. His was the first peer-reviewed study to look at unconventional gas using hydraulic fracturing. He estimated that 8% of the methane in shale gas wells leaks into the atmosphere.
If this is true, fracked gas has total emissions the same as, or worse than, coal or oil. He noted that he did not have complete data and wanted to do “micrometeorological fluxes of methane at the time of venting and get a real number on this, which has never been done.”[1]
While attacks from industry came quickly, most commentators seem to be either unaware of the problem or choose to ignore it. It’s not going away because now some measurements are being done. A study published in Elementa and noted in an Environmental Defense blog by Dale Marshall, Mar 22, 2018, found that the total methane gas emissions in 60 study areas of light oil and natural gas sites around Red Deer, Alberta, were 15 times higher than reported levels. The authors called for much more stringent standards and practices. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) disputes the findings and claims that on-site measuring would be prohibitively expensive. Instead they rely on outdated computer models.
A different study by GreenPath energy found that “95% of pneumatic devices at conventional oil and gas facilities vented methane and other gases such as benzene.” (GreenPath 2016 Alberta Fugitive and Vented Emissions Inventory Study). There are over 300,000 oil and gas wells in Alberta and 25,000 in B.C., with more on the way, plus, in Alberta, over 200,000 abandoned wells. No one knows how many are leaking but estimates range from 10% to a majority. Nor do they know how much methane, benzene and xylene is going up to the atmosphere because no one is counting. The land is like a giant inflated pin cushion blowing out toxins every minute, every hour, every day.
All of this matters a great deal, to the land and to the sea. Methane, the main constituent of natural gas, doesn’t last as long as CO2 in the atmosphere, but its effect is devastating. The Global Warming Potential (GWP) of methane traps up to 100 times more heat in the atmosphere over a five year period than CO2, more than 72 times over a 20 year period and more than 21 times over a hundred year time frame.
Because changes such as melting Arctic and Antarctic ice caps are happening so quickly, the 20-year time period of over 72 times CO2 is commonly used. According to the U.S. EPA data, CO2 accounts for approximately 76% of total greenhouse gas emissions and methane accounts for 16%. Natural gas is not a “bridge fuel” that will help us adapt to a cleaner energy society. It is a dangerous fossil fuel.
(Note: on a Saturday evening in April (big social night for me) as I was reading the EPA data and thinking that it was a good thing that, given the President’s scorn for climate science, the information was still available, the screen suddenly flashed and a message appeared: “We are currently updating our website to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt”. The information I just mentioned completely disappeared and is no longer available on that site.)
Since methane lasts for a much shorter time in the atmosphere and is so potent a greenhouse gas, reducing it can be the fastest way to limit the rise in global temperatures. The first step is to measure it. Modern technology can help. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has announced that it is going to launch a satellite called MethaneSAT by 2021 that will be able to measure hotspots of methane leaks all over the world. The global oil and gas industry has been extremely reluctant to measure its emissions. This could be a great tool. Potentially disruptive too.
The other major source of methane is agriculture. By some estimates it is responsible for 15% of all GHG emissions and for almost half of anthropogenic releases of methane. It is impossible to get an accurate figure given that so much of methane pollution is not monitored. Cows are the main culprit. I referred earlier to a study that indicated the production of one kilogram of beef emits as much CO2 equivalent as an average European car emits in 250 kilometers. One expert said that eating less red meat would be a better way for people to cut carbon emissions than giving up their cars. Another study submitted to Scientific American claimed that feeding a large dog beef caused as much GHG pollution as driving an SUV. This seemed so counter-intuitive the publication staff had other experts look into it. The claim was justified. Of course, people who have large dogs usually also have large SUVs, so the impact is greater still.
Cows are ruminants that digest food in their four stomachs, rather than in their intestines, as most mammals, including humans, do. The bacteria that aid in digestion cause a lot of methane which the cow belches out. One suggested solution I’ve mentioned is the addition of red seaweed to the cows’ diet. English scientists are also experimenting with other food additives, including garlic. In addition to creating five times more GHGs, raising cows also requires 28 times more land and 11 times more water than pork or chicken, and 160 times more land than growing food staples such as potatoes, wheat or rice. A third of the continental land mass in the U.S. is devoted to growing grains or pasture for raising livestock. Again, the most obvious solution would be to include these environmental costs. If they were, beef would become a luxury item. Unfortunately, beef consumption is rising rapidly in developing countries as more people are able to afford it. We need a true global carbon price fast.
About the dogs: there have been recent developments in the raising of insects for fish and human consumption. Great protein. Two billion people, mostly in Africa and South East Asia, eat insects as part of their diet. Bug bars and bug burgers are now being offered in Germany and France. I’m not yet a big fan of eating bugs, but I love fish and four-legged animals. Feed ’em to the dogs! And to the fish!
In northern B.C. a massive LNG plant led by Royal Dutch Shell, Petronas and PetroChina has been approved, thanks to over $6 billion in handouts to LNG Canada by the B.C. and federal governments. The plant will be built by U.S. construction giant, Fluor, which has never constructed a project of this type, is in financial difficulties and having to sell assets. Its share price has dropped over 70% in the last year. Over the past decade globally only 10% of LNG projects have come in under budget. This new LNG plant will blow a massive hole in B.C.’s carbon budget of reducing GHGs by 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. According to Marc Lee of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, “LNG Canada alone would consume between 23% and 31% of B.C.’s allowable emissions by 2030, rising to between 69% and 92% by 2050.” This doesn’t even take into account the pollution created when the fuel is burned. This is not sustainable and indicates a conscious plan on the part of the provincial government to abandon its stated climate goals. It also is in probable violation of Indigenous rights concerning land access and water safety. Governments promoting fossil fuel projects often claim that it’s about “jobs”. But it is not about “jobs” or having to choose between jobs and the environment. It’s about specific, fossil jobs, and politics and party funding. Even the 10,000 construction jobs boasted about by the federal government is completely misleading. 5,500 of those jobs will be in Zhuhai, China, which is where the huge LNG modules will be built, thanks to billions of subsidies from the B.C. and federal governments. Without government subsidies, this project would not be economically successful: Ted Nace is executive director of Global Energy Monitor: “In terms of displacing coal, economically LNG is not competitive with renewable power in Asian markets.”[2] In order to transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency we will require bold investments in emerging technologies such as wind, solar, tide, and energy storage. We will also need to invest massively in training people in these fields. This is where the energy jobs of the future will be. This project makes me very sad. And also angry. My home province was showing some leadership on climate matters. Although the carbon tax that was introduced in 2008 was modest, it was innovative, and did demonstrate that a tax could help bring down emissions without damaging the economy. Now, with LNG going ahead, B.C. will become a climate outlier, and future generations will look back on us very harshly. It seems that because it burns cleaner than oil and coal, LNG has a better reputation than it deserves, one enhanced by the oil and gas companies. People just look the other way. By far the best thing the B.C. government could do with this project is abandon it instead of its climate objectives and put the money into sustainable development and jobs training.
[1] (Cornell Chronicle, Natural gas from fracking could be ‘dirtier’ than coal, Cornell professors find, by Stacey Shackford, Aprill 11, 2011)s
[2] Ted Nace, Lydia Plante,k James Browning, “The New Gas Boom”, June, 2019