Utilities trying to go green have a natural gas problem. Natural gas has long been touted by many industry insiders as a stepping stone away from dirtier fossil fuels like oil and coal on the way to renewable energies and true decarbonization. However, the real impact of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with natural gas extraction, production, and combustion have been obfuscated by years.
While the use of natural gas to generate power, heat homes, and run appliances may be an improvement compared to coal, it’s still a far cry from the kind of zero-emissions energy we need to meet the Paris agreement targets and mitigate the worst effects of climate change. As utilities bulk up their natural gas business as part of their decarbonization road map, many environmentalists are decrying this measure as a blatant and irresponsible form of greenwashing.
A 2020 study found that human emissions of methane had previously been underreported by 40%. Methane’s greenhouse effect is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide (although it does not last as long in the atmosphere) and is to blame for a minimum of 25% of global warming according to figures from the UN Environment Programme. Natural gas production is a huge source of methane venting, both as a routine part of extraction processes and due to accidents (which often go under-reported). “A single blowout at a natural gas well in Ohio in 2018 discharged more methane over three weeks than the oil and gas industries of France, Norway and the Netherlands released in an entire year,” the Guardian reported last year.
Furthermore, natural gas is the culprit of huge amounts of scope 3 emissions, which is the category of greenhouse gas emissions that take place once the gas has already been sold and is no longer technically under the purview of the production company or the utility, but is in the hands of the consumer. These emissions are extremely hard to calculate and even harder to regulate, but they are generally far higher than Scope 1 or 2 emissions, which take place during the production and dissemination phases of the natural gas life cycle. “What to do about so-called Scope 3 emissions tied to customers’ use of gas is perhaps the biggest challenge facing [...] net-zero greenhouse gas ambitions among utilities with gas customers,” said a report published this week by E&E News’ Energywire.
Utilities, on the other hand, argue that any progress is good progress and that greater adoption of natural gas is a net positive if it means that less oil and gas are being burned as a tradeoff. Furthermore, they argue that downsizing the natural gas industry is not up to them, but up to policymakers. As long as buildings continue to be constructed in a way that is based on natural gas ranges and heating systems, the utilities will have to provide that natural gas. So far, policymakers have been extremely divided on this issue. While some places have required new building projects to be electrified, in Texas the bill H.B. 17 “prohibits local jurisdictions from banning utilities from delivering certain energy sources, thus potentially limiting efforts to curb natural gas use.”
While some utilities are starting to set goals for emissions curbing and have shown a dedication to carbon offsetting, much more will have to be done in order to stay on track for climate change mitigation goals. “To reach net zero emissions economy-wide by 2050, any natural gas utility will have to focus not just on the carbon intensity of the fuel supplied, but also facilitate a just and equitable transition away from natural gas as a fuel,” Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy for Energy Innovation told E&E. “And this transition needs to start now.”
Natural gas may be a crucial element in the global energy transition. And it’s true that replacing all coal-fired power with natural gas would be a net gain for the environment and the climate. But, ultimately, the world is set to move toward a low-carbon future with renewable energy sources, backed up by energy storage as the backbone of power generation.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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