Natural gas, fracking and climate change – gas is not a solution, but part of the problem

Natural gas, fracking and climate change – gas is not a solution, but part of the problem

burning natural gas
Gas is not a climate-friendly fuel — Image Credits

Is Gas a climate-friendly energy sources? And the gas industry a climate protector? No, says Laura Weis and explains why we delay the energy transition with this idea.

In the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference, the oil and gas industry is presenting itself as worried. Not because it has misgivings about its business model, which is based on supplying the world with precisely those fuels that are going to have to stay in the ground in order to limit global warming. No, the oil and gas industry is concerned about “the challenge and the threat posed by climate change”, according to a joint statement published in addition to an open letter from the six largest European oil and gas companies to the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, in May[1]. And it goes without saying that they already have the solution: more gas!

Time and again, natural gas has been touted as the most climate-friendly fossil fuel and an “ideal partner” for renewable energy, and not just by the gas industry. Nobody really appears to be questioning this narrative, particularly in Germany, a traditionally heavy user of coal that is currently transitioning to renewables – even though there would be good reason to do so. On closer inspection, natural gas is neither a climate-friendly replacement for coal, nor does it fully complement the expansion of renewable energies. The current shale gas boom in the United States is not contributing to climate protection either, as is so often claimed. Instead, it is impeding the rapid transition to renewable energies and progress in energy efficiency. A look behind the scenes also reveals that the oil and gas industry is not exactly showing great dedication to protecting the climate with its positions on proposed legislation.

Natural gas is not a climate-friendly substitute for coal

Natural gas is often presented as a climate-friendly alternative to coal. A few years ago, Shale Gas Europe, an industry platform, claimed that emissions for electricity generated using shale gas are 49 percent lower than for coal power.[2] The website of the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) states: “Natural gas is also more climate-friendly compared to other fossil fuels as it produces less CO2”[3]. Even environmental organizations have repeatedly pointed out that natural gas is the most environmentally friendly fossil fuel. While the assertion “gas is less damaging to the climate than coal” seems plausible at first glance, it does not hold up for two reasons:

We should first acknowledge that CO2 emissions from natural gas are in fact much lower than those of coal and oil. Methane emissions resulting from the extraction and transport of natural gas hardly ever factor into the statistics, however. Natural gas consists of methane, a substance that has 36 times the climate impact of CO2[4]. In other words, even very small amounts of methane can cause great harm if they escape into the atmosphere. According to calculations by Food and Water Watch,[5] natural gas has a greater climate impact than coal over a twenty-year period if only 2.8 percent of the gas escapes into the atmosphere unburned. Methane emissions are difficult to measure, so exact figures are not available. According to Food and Water Watch estimates, which are based on various recent scientific publications and local measurements, actual leakage rates are significantly higher. This is particularly true for fracked gas.

The shale boom in the U.S. does not contribute to climate protection

A further reason why natural gas does not contribute to climate protection is given by the 2014 study “Limited impact on decadal-scale climate change from increased use of natural gas”[6]. Using a variety of models, it calculates that a worldwide expansion of gas use arising from the shale gas boom would have no relevant positive climate effects. One reason is that gas would not only displace coal from the energy mix, but also zero-carbon renewable alternatives. Since carbon emissions from gas are not significantly lower than that of the average global energy mix, the savings would be extremely low at best. This contradicts the frequently-stated assumption[7] that the decline of CO2 emissions in the United States is due to the increased use of natural gas in the energy mix.

The study “Drivers of the US CO2 emissions 1997–2013“[8] delivers empirical proof for this hypothesis. It shows that the increased use of gas as a result of the shale boom was only responsible for a relatively small proportion of the reduction in U.S. CO2 emissions. The main driver for the 11 percent decrease in CO2 emissions from 2007 to 2013 was the recession in the wake of the financial crisis. The authors of the study attribute the 4.4 percent decrease in CO2 emissions in the energy mix to a long-term trend away from coal that would have occurred even without the fracking boom. The study shows that the assertion that CO2 emissions in the United States declined dramatically due to the shale gas boom is a myth – and it reached that result even without taking the above-mentioned methane emissions into consideration. The study thus demonstrates that not more natural gas, but less growth would be a promising way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Unconventional reserves must stay in the ground

If we are to have any chance of limiting global warming to 2°C, the bulk of the remaining fossil fuel resources must stay in the ground. Even the chief economist of British Petroleum (BP), one of the largest oil and gas companies worldwide, admitted recently that world’s oil reserves are unlikely to be fully exploited due to concern about climate change.[9] The Carbon Tracker Initiative assumes that four fifths[10] of the known world reserves of fossil fuels must remain in the ground unburned if we are to meet the 2°C target. The development of additional reserves using fracking or offshore drilling in the Arctic runs counter to this goal.[11] Despite considerable lip service to the 2°C target in advance of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, actions of policymakers even in Germany – a supposed leader in the transition to renewable energies – are falling short, be it in rapidly phasing out coal or in regulating fracking.

The hydraulic fracturing of rock in combination with horizontal drilling has made it possible to exploit oil and gas from shale and other unconventional reserves since the start of the millennium. Global reserves of technically and economically viable fossil fuels have thus increased significantly. The fracking boom started in the United States and led to the country’s rise to become the world’s largest producer of oil and gas. As a result, prices for natural gas in the U.S. and the worldwide oil price have fallen dramatically. After reaching more than $100 a barrel in mid-2014, the oil price fell to less than $50 in early 2015 and has since not risen to more than $60 to $70. From the climate protection perspective, this development cuts both ways: While the low price of oil is increasingly causing investors to withdraw from extremely expensive and environmentally damaging projects such as exploiting tar sands,[12] there is no guarantee that these resources will remain in the ground when the oil price rises again. At the same time, the low oil price reduces the incentive to save energy or to invest in the expansion of renewable energies.

Natural gas: more of a competitor than a partner of renewables

Whenever natural gas is praised as a climate-friendly fuel, a reference to its good compatibility with renewable energies is usually not far behind. The website of the BMWi describes natural gas as a “flexible and versatile energy source for generating electricity”. The German oil and gas company Wintershall praises its product as a “partner for renewables”.[13] The German oil and gas industry association WEG sees natural gas as a “perfect complement” to renewable energies.[14] Even a 2010 study by Greenpeace Germany calls natural gas a “bridge to the age of renewables”.

That is not necessarily incorrect. Modern gas turbines are indeed better suited to compensating for fluctuations in the generation of electricity from renewable sources than coal plants. Whereas coal power plants are designed for constant power output, gas power plants can be brought online relatively flexibly to offset a lack of wind or sunshine. In view of this, keeping modern German gas power plants on standby while coal plants produce so much electricity around the clock that it needs to be sold to neighboring countries during peak hours is madness.

That, however, is only half the story, because gas is already competing with renewables for a place in the energy mix of the future. The race is taking place in both the economic and political arenas. Falling prices for fossil fuels due to the shale gas boom have reduced the economic incentives for the development of renewable energies and energy conservation. Various studies[15] have concluded that increased gas production and the associated lower energy prices are displacing climate-friendly alternatives such as renewable energies. At the same time, it is leading to an increase in global primary energy consumption due to the reduced incentive to save energy. Even the IEA concluded in its recently published World Energy Outlook 2015 that the transition to renewable energies could be delayed if the oil price remains low over the long term.[16]

In the political arena, this competition is particularly clear at the EU level: Despite declining demand in the EU since 2010, gas infrastructure in the form of pipelines and LNG terminals is set to expand in the coming years.[17] Anyone expanding gas infrastructure today is not going to cut back its consumption tomorrow. Considering the long amortization periods involved, infrastructure decisions are always decisions about the future. Indeed, the EU Commission considers natural gas in tandem with carbon capture and storage (CCS) to be a potential fuel of the future, stating: “If Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is available and applied at large scale, gas may become a low-carbon technology”[18]. CCS has not made it past the experimental stage, however. Nevertheless, hopes of its large-scale application have remained a last straw to clutch to justify business as usual. Natural gas is more of a competitor than a partner of renewable energies for the aforementioned reasons, however.

Oil and gas companies are not environmentalists

The lobbyists of the oil and gas industry in Brussels play a significant role in decisions of this nature. Last year, BP, Shell, Statoil, Total and others did their share to prevent the establishment of mandatory national targets for the expansion of renewable energy and increased energy efficiency for the time after 2020. EU subsidies for clean technologies will be largely phased out already in 2017.[19] Despite this broadside for renewable energies, corporations such as Total, Wintershall and Shell continue to infiltrate the representative bodies of the renewables sector in Germany and at the EU level on a grand scale. In the run-up to the COP, the oil and gas industry is styling itself as a guardian of the climate, as in the aforementioned letter. We can expect it to sing praises to its supposed contributions to climate protection during the actual conference as well. However, an Influence Map study[20] shows that the industry is in fact preaching water while drinking wine: whenever concrete proposals for the introduction of a carbon price were put on the table in the past, its leaders were not exactly characterized by great support for such measures.

It therefore remains true that gas is not a climate-friendly fuel and the companies associated with it are, by definition, not in the business of protecting the climate. Any assertions to the contrary must be taken with a large grain of salt. Anyone wanting to profit from coal, oil or gas cannot protect the climate at the same time.
 


[2] Corporate Europe Observatory (2012): “Foot on the Gas”: Lobbyists push for unregulated shale gas in the EU, http://corporateeurope.org/sites/default/files/shale_gas_lobby_final.pdf

[4]  United States Environmental Protection Agency: http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gwps.html;
        Gunnar Myhre et al. (2013): Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing, in: IPCC: Climate Change 2013. The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg1/WG1AR5_Chapter08_FINAL.pdf 

[6] Haewon McJeon et.al. (2014): Limited impact on decadal-scale climate change from increased use of natural gas, in: Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v514/n7523/full/nature13837.html  

[7] cf. For example: EU-Kommission (2014):Ein Rahmen für die Klima- und Energiepolitik im Zeitraum 2020-2030, COM(2014) 15, Brussels, 22 January, 2014: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/DE/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52014DC0015&from=DE

[8] Kuishuang Feng, Steven J. Davis, Laixiang Sun, Klaus Hubacek (2015): Drivers of the US CO2 emissions 1997–2013, in: Nature Communications 6, July 2015: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2015/150721/ncomms8714/full/ncomms8714.html

[9] The Guardian (2015): Oil unlikely to ever be fully exploited because of climate concerns – BP: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/13/oil-unlikely-to-ever-be-fully-exploited-because-of-climate-concerns-bp?CMP=share_btn_tw,

      BP (2015): New economics of oil, Executive summary: http://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/press/speeches/new-economics-of-oil.html

[10] Carbon Tracker Initiative: Unburnable Carbon – Are the world’s financial markets carrying a carbon bubble: http://www.carbontracker.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Unburnable-Carbon-Full-rev2-1.pdf

[11] McGlade/Ekins (2015): The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C, in: Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v517/n7533/full/nature14016.html

[12] Mike T. Klare (2015): Double-Dip oil Rout, in: Huffingtonpost: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-t-klare/doubledip-oil-rout_b_7982896.html

[15] Haewon McJeon et.al. (2014): Limited impact on decadal-scale climate change from increased use of natural gas, in: Nature 514, p. 482–485, 23 October 2014: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v514/n7523/full/nature13837.html

      UBA (2015): The impact of shale gas on the costs of climate policy: https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/378/publikationen/climate_change_03_2015_the_impact_of_shale_gas_1.pdf

[16] IEA (2015): World Energy Outlook, Summary: http://www.iea.org/Textbase/npsum/WEO2015SUM.pdf

[17] E3G (2015): Europe’s declining gas demand: http://www.e3g.org/news/media-room/europes-declining-gas-demand

[18] European Commission (2011): Energy Road Map 2050, COM(2011) 885, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52011DC0885&from=EN

[19] The Guardian (2015): BP lobbied against EU support for clean energy to favour gas, documents reveal: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/aug/20/bp-lobbied-against-eu-support-clean-energy-favour-gas-documents-reveal

[20] InfluenceMap (2015): Big Oil and the Obstruction of Climate Regulations, October 2015: http://influencemap.org/site/data/000/099/InfluenceMap_Oil_Sector_October_2015.pdf

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