Exxon, Shell Censured for Claiming Natural Gas Is 'Cleanest' Fossil Fuel
By Farron Cousins
For many years, a standard talking point from the fossil fuel industry and those who speak on the industry's behalf has been that natural gas is a cleaner alternative to conventional energy sources like coal and oil. This talking point is at least partially responsible for many people—including former President Barack Obama and his Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz—believing that natural gas can act as a "bridge fuel" in the eventual shift from coal and oil to renewable sources of energy.
But the truth is a lot more complicated than a talking point, something which a Dutch advertising watchdog has recognized as it takes two fossil fuel companies to task over misleading ads about natural gas being the "cleanest of all fossil fuels."
At first glance, natural gas does appear to be "cleaner" due to the simple fact that it does not release as much carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned as coal. However, when you account for the release of methane (a much more potent but shorter-lived greenhouse gas) from burning natural gas—a number which is frequently underreported—its climate impact goes through the roof, revealing a fuel source roughly equal in total emissions to other fossil fuel sources.
Natural Gas Is Not the Answer, New Study Finds https://t.co/30kOMA8NKT @Connect4Climate @ClimateDesk— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1498165507.0
To complicate the issue further, when natural gas is extracted via the horizontal drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the overall environmental impact can actually exceed that of fuel sources such as coal and oil.
When all of these factors are taken into account, it becomes clear that natural gas is not the wonder fuel that the industry and its cheerleaders would have us believe.
The big question then becomes how should society handle this kind of spin and misinformation from industry? In Europe, they've decided to censure the dirty energy companies that are trying to convince the public that natural gas is a cleaner alternative to coal and oil.
According to reports, an advertising standards board in the Netherlands will formally censure Exxon and Shell, as part-owners of a Dutch petroleum company, for advertising the claim that natural gas is "the cleanest of all fossil fuels." The ad campaign featuring this claim ran earlier this year. Just two months ago, the agency also admonished Statoil for making the claim that natural gas was a "low emissions fuel" and for calling it "clean energy."
As The Guardian reported:
"The Dutch watchdog waived punitive action against the NAM company, which is part-owned by Shell and Exxon, in that light.
Paul de Clerk of Friends of the Earth Europe, which co-filed the complaint with Milieudefensie, said: 'This clear ruling by the advertisement standards board is of great importance. Time after time we see how oil and gas companies are misleading citizens and politicians.
'They want us to believe that gas is clean and they support the transition to renewable energy. Behind the screens we see how the same companies lobby against this transition. To prevent catastrophic climate change we need to end the dependency on all fossil fuels—including gas.'"
While the move by the Dutch advertising watchdog is a great step forward, the U.S. is still embracing the backwards policy of believing that natural gas is the fuel of the future, with the Trump administration pushing world leaders at a recent G20 meeting to buy American natural gas by calling it "clean technology" and insinuating it's a more stable source than Russian gas.
The Dutch regulators understand that natural gas is not clean, it is not revolutionary, and it certainly is not a "bridge fuel." If anything, the constant claims that natural gas could be cleaner are helping to prevent areas of the world from making the switch to renewable sources of energy, even as that sector continues to show phenomenal growth.
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
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Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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