Debunked: report exposes myth of gas as a clean transition fuel

The concept of gas as a “bridge fuel” to a stable climate is a myth.

Oil Change International recently published a new report, Debunked: the G20 clean gas myth, which questions the ongoing push for expanding fossil gas production in G20 countries and aims to debunk the myth of gas as a clean transition fuel.

The report found emissions from existing gas fields, together with existing oil and coal development, already exceed the carbon budgets of the Paris Agreement. Even if all coalmines were shut down tomorrow, the gas and oil in already-developed fields would take the world beyond the carbon budget for a 50% chance at staying below 1.5ºC of global warming.

Despite this reality, G20 countries are projected to host investment of more than US$1.6 trillion in new gas projects by 2030. If this happens, emissions unlocked through to 2050 would make it extremely difficult to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, which has been signed by all G20 members.

Five countries — the United States, Russia, Australia, China, and Canada — are projected to be responsible for 75% of capital expenditures in gas production in G20 countries over 2018–30.

As shale gas production has grown — enabled by the development of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling — much of the controversy over whether increased gas production and consumption can deliver a transition to a cleaner energy system has centred around the issue of methane leakage. Methane, the primary hydrocarbon in fossil gas, is a highly potent greenhouse gas when vented or leaked to the atmosphere.

Studies have found that methane leakage levels can be much higher for gas produced via fracking than for conventionally produced gas. If elevated levels of methane are leaked in the process of producing and delivering gas to consumers, then its emissions’ advantage over coal for power generation or other uses is reduced or negated, and the bridge fuel idea is mistaken.

Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) is fossil gas that is cooled to –162°C degrees to reduce volume and facilitate shipping across oceans. On arrival the liquefied gas is regasified to be further transported by pipeline to its final destination.

As might be expected, this intense process requires a lot of energy. Electricity and gas are generally used to power the plants that chill the gas into LNG. Where gas is used, it is estimated that 6–10% of the gas processed is required for powering the plant. Energy is also required for shipping and regasification. So, the LNG process adds a significant amount to the full lifecycle emissions of producing and using gas.

If methane leakage is not kept at very low levels — well below 2%, depending on shipping distance and other factors — replacing coal with LNG may result in increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem with building a lot of new gas capacity is that the companies investing in gas infrastructure expect to operate their plants for decades to come. Power plants and related infrastructure, such as pipelines and LNG terminals, are multibillion-dollar investments that require decades of operation to turn a profit. Nobody investing today expects to retire the infrastructure earlier than 30 years into its lifetime at minimum, while many power plants operate for much longer.

This means that gas plants built over the next few years could still be operating beyond 2050, when emissions from the power sector must be nearing zero.

The myth of fossil gas as a “bridge” to a stable climate does not stand up to scrutiny. While much of the debate has focused on methane leakage, the data shows that the emissions just from burning the gas itself are enough to overshoot climate goals. We must reduce gas combustion rather than increase it and the fact that methane leakage will never be reduced to zero only makes this task more urgent.

[Debunked: the G20 clean gas myth was produced by: Oil Change International, a research, communications, and advocacy organisation focused on exposing the true costs of fossil fuels and facilitating the coming transition towards clean energy. This article first appeared in Fossil Fool Bulletin.]