I am sharing good news on this podcast: Natural gas is done in 10 years. Certainly in Europe. Give it another 5 years on top and it will also be done in Asia and in the US too. It’s going the same way as coal. Why? In short, because the information fog is lifting after decades of obfuscation: We now know it’s about as dirty as coal. Whoever named it “Natural Gas” instead of “Highly Explosive Climate Change Accelerating Fossil Fuel Gas” deserves a branding award.
Photo by Assaad W. Razzouk
I have good news today.
Natural gas is going to be done with in 10 years. Totally done with. Certainly in Europe. Give it 5 more years and it’ll also be done in Asia and in the United States.
It’s going the same way as coal.
Why? In short, because the information fog around it is lifting and I’m going to take a shot today at explaining why.
I recently read an elegantly written article entitled “Green Power Needs to Account For All Its Costs: UK study shows weather dependent, electricity generation has significant hidden expenses”. The author argued that now that we’ve started depending on the weather for an increasing chunk of our electricity, it’s a huge problem because the wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun doesn’t shine all the time. And as a result, the intermittency of solar and wind and the need to plan for what to do when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining adds what he calls “system costs”, which mean in effect that renewables are much more expensive than they appear, which was the whole point of the article. The author then reasonably concludes, within the context of his framework, that we could end up with a more expensive decarbonized system than we need.
That is the type of subtle ignorance which I have to put up with. And it really makes me angry.
Notice first how the author refers to “weather” instead of the sun and wind. That’s convenient, obviously because it sleep walks the reader, it sleepwalks me into forgetting that the sun and the wind are free.
Notice also that this is the world upside down, frankly, like, can we please start by having highly explosive, dirty, unhealthy, and climate changing, dirty power account for all its costs and then go from there?
At a minimum in articles like these, can we have a disclaimer added when talking about the alternatives to green power? I’ve got one I’d like to suggest. Here goes:
“Fossil fuel alternatives to green power are a serious threat to the economic wellbeing, public health, natural resources and environment of everyone on earth, through both dangerous pollution and increased climate change impact, including loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level rise, longer, more intense heat waves, wildfires and droughts, stronger and more intense hurricanes and typhoons and accelerating species extinctions around the world.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if that disclaimer was in every article you read about oil, gas, or coal?
Welcome to Episode 39 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy with me, Assad Razzouk. I am so happy you’re here. Thank you.
THE PETROCHEMICALS INDUSTRY
If you want to understand, in fact based terms, the continued destruction that the oil and gas industry is planning for, what they’ve already done and what they’re planning for. I suggest you take another look at my Episode 23 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy for Exhibit One, the petrochemicals industry.
THE GAS INDUSTRY
Today, I present Exhibit Two, the gas industry.
I’m confident you’ve heard of natural gas. It’s supposed to be the cleaner transition fuel, which is going to help us save the world because it emits about half the carbon dioxide of coal.
Notice I said cleaner, not clean. But this doesn’t stop Big Oil, in prominently featured advertising, to claim it is clean energy.
Shell for example brazenly buys millions of dollars worth of advertising, presenting natural gas as clean energy, as does Total, Exxon, BP, and a slew of smaller oil and gas and power companies.
I have to say though that whoever named it “natural gas”, instead of “highly explosive fossil fuel gas” deserves a branding award. Well done. And you know what? That was done on purpose in order to spread a fog of misinformation about it.
NATURAL GAS HISTORY
Let me see first if I can explain what it is.
Millions, maybe hundreds of millions of years ago, and over long periods of time, the remains of plants and animals built up in thick layers on the earth surface and on the oceans and mixed with sand, silt and calcium carbonate. Over time, these layers were buried under more and more sand and silt and rock. Then pump pressure and heat into this carbon- and hydrogen-rich material and it changes into coal, oil and natural gas.
Just like oil, we’ve been using natural gas since ancient times.
The Oracle Adelphi, for example, on Mount Parnassus in Greece owed its mystical reputation a thousand years before Christ to natural gas that seeped through the rocks, mentally affecting Pythia and her devotees.
Five hundred years before Christ, the Chinese were transporting natural gas through bamboo pipelines, then they were burning it to desalinate seawater and make it drinkable
By 100 A.D. , the Persians were using natural gas in their homes.
The first commercial use of natural gas occurred in England, where in 1785 it was produced from coal and used to light houses and streets.
Three decades later in 1816, Maryland in the US did the same, the first city in the United States to do so
Then we pioneered new ways to utilize the thermal properties of natural gas.
So in 1904, for example, it was used to provide central heating and large scale, hot water supplies in London, changing to the better, the lives of millions.
Then we started using it to generate electricity.
About 40 years later in 1940 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, the first natural gas turbine was born. Then the use of gas for electricity started to grow exponentially.
Today, combined cycle plants operate with greater efficiencies, I have to say, and lower emissions, than any other types of fossil fuel plants like coal for example. They’ve spread so much that natural gas plants today supply more than half the energy consumed in residences and in commercial applications in the U S and to be fair to natural gas, it does all that while producing half the CO2, so half the carbon dioxide, a third of the nitrogen oxide, and 1% the sulphur oxide of the average coal fired plant.
IT STILL KILLS YOU, BUT MORE SLOWLY
In other words, it still kills you, but more slowly.
More importantly, this doesn’t tell anywhere near the full story. This is just what we are repeatedly told, but I’m going to try and tell you the full story.
Let’s go first to the lifecycle of gas.
We find it basically in rocks under us in various forms – you might it hear called conventional natural gas or shale gas or associated natural gas – but it’s all the same thing. The only difference is where you get it from. So you drill an oil and gas well, or a gas well, or in the case of fracking, you inject an enormous amount of chemicals and sand into the rocks to extract it. You then take it out and through a process of separation, you isolate it. It then goes into gas processing plants where bad products are removed. (Non-hydrocarbon gases are removed and by removed what they actually do most of the time is they vent it and they flare it. In other words, they dump it into the atmosphere).
Then from the gas processing plant, it goes into a compressor station and eventually to a natural gas company, which either sells it to consumers through pipes or stores it in liquid form to ship it somewhere else.
So you might ask what’s the problem with all this?
DIRTIER THAN COAL
Well, the problem is that this stuff, natural gas, leaks methane at every point. Methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, leaks at every point in this process.
It leaks when we extract the natural gas.
It leaks when we transport it.
It leaks when we process it.
It leaks when we store it.
It leaks when we burn it.
That’s a big reason why methane out of nowhere is now 15% of all our greenhouse gas emissions and rising. That’s why natural gas is very often dirtier than coal. Yes. You heard that right. If you look at it in totality, it’s very often dirtier than coal and actually building any more of it also jeopardizes all of our climate goals.
I mean, everything leaks and it leaks from everywhere.
A study published in the journal Science Daily found that U.S. oil and gas operations were leaking 60% more methane than their regulator had calculated. A New York Times investigation showed that “immense” (that’s their word, not mine), immense amounts of methane are escaping from oil and gas sites nationwide. How did they discover that? They photographed the secret pollution with a highly specialized camera in a tiny plane crammed with scientific equipment. Why did they have to do that? Because oil and gas companies do not disclose their pollution and emission correctly most of the time, because they don’t have to, and it’s not regulated.
Methane is loosely regulated. It’s difficult to detect. It’s rising sharply. That’s why natural gas’ days are ending. Oil and gas companies simply pretty much lie, or omit the truth if you prefer, about the methane that they burn or leak. The proof is very clear in our air, in our sky and in your lungs.
The result: Emissions of methane globally are soaring to record highs and this rise is continuing.
Do you know why it’s continuing? Because we’ve been sold natural gas as a “transition fuel”, which means that more people have been using it and therefore the leakages have been increasing.
Think about it this way for example. To move all that gas around, you need huge polluting and leaking ships, and you need huge networks of leaking pipelines.
The total length of the global pipeline network for this is 2 million kilometers. In other words, we’ve dug underground 2 million kilometers, that’s 50 times around the earth at its widest length, the Equator, we’ve built 2 million kilometers of pipelines to transport the natural gas that we don’t actually need.
That’s 2 million leaking pipelines.
That’s 2 million pipelines with explosive risk potential.
On top, at least 525 ships move the stuff around and this was increasing sharply before Coronavirus.
So not only do we have to dig deep into the ground and the oceans to extract the stuff, but then we have to process it, then we have to build massive infrastructure to take it around while it’s leaking all the way and periodically blowing up as well. There’s been 10,000 pipeline-related incidents over the last 30 years. That’s why recently you might have heard that very large pipeline projects in the U.S. have become toxic with controversy, because permitting for that gas infrastructure is becoming increasingly litigious, uncertain and very costly. But of course that’s how it should be. And shipping this stuff should be also increasing litigious, uncertain and costly.
Remember methane is 34 times stronger than CO2 at trapping heat over a hundred years, and 86 times stronger, that’s 86 times stronger, over 20 years.
Methane does not have a lower life cycle greenhouse gas emissions than coal. Because once you take into account the proper leakage associated with it, it’s actually worse than cold.
And that’s where the art of obfuscation is: Talking about the pollution from burning natural gas, selling that as better than coal, and staying so silent about leakages, which are not even regulated properly.
To put a metric into this, methane losses through leakages must be kept below 3.2% for natural gas power plants to have lower life cycle emissions than coal. However, they’re not. I’m sorry to be repetitive, but in other words, oil and gas companies sell us gas as a cleaner fuel by laser-focusing on the fact that it’s cleaner than coal when you burn it, and then they bury the data about leakages of this stuff along the way. The entire debate is skewed as a result and misleading, but so many governments bought into it and that’s not funny.
NATURAL GAS ON ITS WAY TO BEING PHASED OUT
On a positive note, The approval of new projects in oil and gas are down 75% in 2020 because energy companies have massively reduced spending on exploration and production because of the Coronavirus.
Do you know how coronavirus is playing a role? It’s making everyone aware that we are being asphyxiated. That’s how it’s playing a role. It’s not just the reduction in economic activity. It’s the increased focus on health, science and lungs. So the oil and gas sector is set to plunge 75% in 2020 in terms of new projects and that’s from $200 billion in 2019. In 2019, that’s last year, they spent $200 billion building more future infrastructure that asphyxiates us. That is no longer okay.
In addition, LNG investments, so investments in the infrastructure we need to transport that gas in liquid form vanished this year because Coronavirus slashed oil and gas prices. There was no new LNG export plants approved this year for the first time in 22 years.
Number one, there is no way to safely extract or process or transport natural gas, and you don’t need to extract, process or transport the sun or the wind.
Number two, investment is drying up and it’s drying up because of the right reasons. The public is screaming that we’re being asphyxiated but in Episode 26 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy for example, I described a cataclysmic event in this space, which is that the largest multilateral lender in the world, the European Investment Bank, had said no to lending more money to oil, gas, and coal. So not just coal but oil and gas as well. And the reason it was cataclysmic is because we’ve been told time and time again by oil companies that natural gas is clean or is a bridge to a cleaner future, but now the biggest multilateral bank in the world agrees with me: That’s not true.
The move by the European Investment Bank is the kind of change that we need much more of. Climate change is like an octopus with so many tentacles reaching into everything that we do: Food, plastics, clothing, transport, buildings, you name it. What we need to beat it, is we need system change, which is code word for top-down change. The European Investment Bank’s move is a system change move, and we need much more of that. I don’t know if you’re listening World Bank, IFC, all the other so-called Development Finance Institutions, but no more gas, please. We don’t need it because it’s expensive and it’s killing us.
Now on a cautionary note, even if oil and gas disappears, remember we have to keep our eye on the ball – because pipelines are here to stay. People with pipelines on their land have started to be worried about what happens when they’re abandoned, because even in their afterlives, these “zombie pipelines” are able to spill toxic materials. To give you a sense of that, if you leave that pipeline in place, it runs the risk of contaminating nearby soil; it contaminates the water with leftover oil or with the chemicals used to clean it; and over time the pipeline breaks down and occasionally it causes the land around it to sink.
We have to make sure that oil and gas companies not only disappear, but disappear while paying for the costs that they are leaving behind.
Thank you so much for listening to this Episode 39 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy with me, Assaad Razzouk and have a great couple of weeks.
There is so much to be angry about, if you are a clean energy guy.
Every day, so many things that happen around the world make me angry when I look at them with lenses colored by the climate change chaos unfolding everywhere around us. And I am especially angry because I know we can solve the climate change crisis if we were only trying.
Each week, I will share with you a few topics that struck me and that I was very angry about – and this will generally have to do with climate change, solar or wind power, plastic pollution, environmental degradation, wildlife, the oceans and other related topics.