An open letter to solar companies: beware alliance with the gas industry

May 19th, 2016, Published in Articles: Energize

 

Oil and gas companies are professing that the natural gas and solar industries should be partners, working together supposedly to mutual benefit. It is a strategy that should be avoided by all solar companies able to do so, in other words, those which are not owned by oil and gas companies, as long as the oil and gas industry pursues its current goal of growing gas use for decades to come.

JL at CT retreat

Jeremy Leggett

The COP21 Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted by every independent nation last December, commits the international community to a global warming ceiling well below 2°C. The world’s best climate scientists are clear on what this means in terms of emissions limitations: total decarbonisation as soon as possible, and certainly within a few decades.

There is no room for anything except a managed retreat from gas, yet oil and gas companies claim that society will still be mostly dependent on growing supplies several decades from now. BP’s recent Global Energy Outlook [1] foresees the probability of 80% fossil-fuel use in 2035, most of it oil and natural gas. Solar can grow, but will still have only a minor role. Make no mistake, this is the future most oil and gas companies are lobbying for, as things stand.

The industry repeats a mantra at every opportunity: that gas is less bad than coal in fuelling global warming, focusing on the fact that burning a unit of natural gas releases less greenhouse gas than burning a unit of coal. This is true, but it ignores gas leakage. Gas leaks add methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere. If as little as 2% leaks before it is burned, gas is as bad as coal in global warming terms.

There is a growing body of evidence, across the entire global gas supply chain, of more than 2% leakage. Individual companies may be good at controlling their emissions, but their industry as a whole clearly fails the test. As long ago as 2011, scientists from Cornell University estimated that gas leakage from a US shale well could be 7,9% over its lifetime.

Gas industry lobbying has ensured that there has been astonishingly little systematic monitoring, but since 2013, a steady stream of measurements and observations of high leakage has emerged, as summarised in The winning of the carbon war [2]. Worrying evidence has continued to clock up since its publication in January.

In March this year, researchers from Harvard University used satellite observations to show a “startling” increase in US methane concentrations, and suggested that shale fracking is the most likely explanation. Gina McCarthy of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says methane emissions from existing sources in the oil and gas sector are much higher than was previously understood.

Most US gas, fracked from shale or otherwise, is stored underground in abandoned oil and gas fields. In October 2015, one such field near Los Angeles started to leak so profusely that it became California’s biggest source of methane emission. When it was finally plugged 112 days later, almost 100 000 tonnes of methane had escaped: the amount of gas consumed annually by a medium-sized European country.

During the public outcry, it became clear that shoddy regulation [3] has resulted in many more of America’s 400 storage fields being at risk of leaking.

Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published data from airborne monitoring about the US shale belt, suggesting leakage on a massive scale as a result of gas production [4].

One wonders how the gas industry can stick to its “gas is good for the climate” mantra in the face of this kind of worrying evidence. The least uncharitable answer is “enculturated wilful blindness”.

Another reason solar companies should avoid this proposed partnership is the demonstrably malign nature of much oil and gas lobbying.

One recent case illustrates the point. The US and Canadian governments have decided to face up to gas leakage as best they can, announcing a commitment to cut methane emissions from their oil and gas industries by up to 45%.

The reaction of the American Petroleum Institute was not to welcome much-needed help in a crucial route to emissions limitation. It will instead take the Obama administration to court for loading “unnecessary” costs on the shale revolution. The revolution they speak of is in fact a slow-motion bust as company after company goes bankrupt because they can no longer service the mountain of junk debt they have been permitted to build as they prosecute a doomed business model wherein drilling costs exceed revenues.

We don’t have that cost problem in solar. Which is another reason for steering clear of any industry-wide partnership with gas.

References

[1] BP: “BP Energy Outlook 2016 edition”, http://goo.gl/ah8ned

[2] J Leggett: The winning of the carbon war, www.jeremyleggett.net/latestbook

[3] Reuters: “California gas leak spotlights shoddy regulation of ageing storage wells”, http://goo.gl/FFCQ0s

[4] The Washington Post: “The US oil and gas boom is having global atmospheric consequences, scientists suggest”, https://goo.gl/ZnltFV

Contact Jeremy Leggett, SolarCentury, jeremy.leggett@solarcentury.com

 

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