Natural Gas Statement

The Federal Government, with support from the fossil fuel industry, have openly admitted that the price on pollution will lead to coal being replaced with gas, rather than renewable energy – if no further policy initiatives are introduced. Additionally, the Yarra Energy Foundation is exploring gas-fired co-generation and tri-generation as ways to reduce our local area’s emissions.

The statement below clearly shows why shifting from coal to gas, rather than to renewable energy, is suicidal from an economic and environmental standpoint.

 

Contents:

Summary

1. Scientific context

2. What is natural gas?

3. Emissions from gas

4. Other environmental damage from gas

5. Energy security

6. Alternatives to gas

 

Summary

The climate and energy crises that we face demand solutions that fit the scale of the problem. Natural gas is a fossil fuel which produces large amounts of carbon dioxide when burnt to make heat and electricity. Its extraction pollutes land and water and destroys precious farmland.

While gas fired power stations, cogeneration and trigeneration may appear attractive at the moment, there are plenty of zero emissions alternatives available which do not involve locking our society into decades of risky and polluting gas infrastructure.

Gas is not a transitional fuel, it is a dangerous detour.

 

1. Scientific context

Australians are already suffering from the impacts of climate change and fossil fuel dependence. Worsening droughts, heatwaves, bushfires and floods are costing lives, damaging our economy, and increasing the cost of living. The Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan[i] neatly summarises the urgency of the current climate science:

“According to research carried out by NASA and others, current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are already sufficiently high to carry the climate system past significant tipping points[ii]. They pose an unacceptable risk of dangerous and irreversible changes to the world’s climate, to biodiversity, and therefore to human civilisation. These changes directly affect Australia’s food and water security, and increase the risk of regional instability.

“Using a global carbon budget approach, recent work by the German Advisory Council on Global Change demonstrates that, to have a two-in-three chance of keeping global warming to less than 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures, developed nations with the highest per capita rates of emissions, such as the United States and Australia, would need to decarbonise their economies by 2020[iii]. Atmospheric carbon dioxide must be reduced from the current level of over 390 parts per million (ppm) into the range of 300 to 350 ppm.”

Unfortunately we cannot negotiate with the laws of physics and with natural ecosystems. We need to get to zero emissions and take carbon out of the atmosphere.

2. What is natural gas?

Usually referred to as natural gas, gas is a fossil fuel mainly made up of methane (CH4). Gas has traditionally been a by-product of oil extraction, which has now become a valuable commodity. It is usually extracted from oil and gas wells, as well as less traditional sources such as coal seams.

Natural gas when burned produces carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. When it leaks into the atmosphere (as it often does) as methane, it has a global warming potential 72 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20 year timeframe (that is, one molecule of natural gas causes 72 times the global warming of one molecule of carbon dioxide averaged over a 20 year period).

YCAN is generally supportive of the use of other types of gases that are created within the current carbon cycle, like biogas, as long as they are from truly renewable sources and don’t take up land that would otherwise be used to grow food. Our current understanding is that there is very limited capacity to produce gas in this way and no capacity in the foreseeable future to supply all our current gas needs from renewable sources.

3. Emissions from gas

Gas is most certainly not a zero emissions or renewable energy source.  Those that stand to make a lot of money from gas try to sell it as “clean”, but nothing could be further from the truth. While natural gas-fired power plants are the least carbon intensive out of all fossil fuels (producing about half the emissions of coal), they are still highly emitting. Gas-fired power stations produce about 515kg of CO2 per megawatt hour of energy generated[iv].

However, emissions from gas-fired power stations or cogeneration and trigeneration systems don’t tell the whole story. Before it is burnt to produce heat, natural gas must be extracted, refined and transported. Each step of the way, more emissions are produced and gas leaks into the atmosphere. Very little research has been done into the total life-cycle emissions from natural gas, but a recent study out of Cornell University showed that emissions from shale gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) was:

“…greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.” (emphasis added)[v]

Fracking is a particularly dirty way of extracting gas. However, this research also shows that the emissions from conventional gas extraction are no less than coal when the whole life-cycle is examined. It is obvious that gas cannot be called clean, and the claims by the gas industry that it is must be treated as false unless proven otherwise.

4. Other environmental damage from gas

Apart from its emissions, the extraction process for gas is highly damaging to human health and the environment.

Drilling for oil and gas sometimes goes wrong and severe land and water pollution occurs as a result.  Also, coal seam gas extraction has been shown to pollute groundwater and destroy agricultural land[vi]. In Australia the demand for gas is resulting in some of our best farmland being turned into gas fields. As the world faces the increasing challenge of feeding a growing population while the impacts of climate change reduce agricultural production, polluting our groundwater and destroying farmland to obtain gas is pure insanity. Any increase in gas use is contributing to this destruction.

5. Energy security

Using gas as a fuel exposes us to uncertainties as the cost of gas fluctuates in the global marketplace. Australia had previously been shielded from this but as our export infrastructure for natural gas is built, international parity pricing (i.e. paying the same for gas as the global market price) will become the norm.  We are already seeing how our dependence on oil is leaving our economy at the mercy of the fluctuating oil price. Why risk the same thing happening with gas? Renewable energy has no fuel costs.

6. Alternatives to gas

Gas should not be a part of the transition to a zero emissions economy. It is not a transition fuel, it is a detour from the renewable energy future we want and need. Large multinational companies stand to make the most profit from gas-fired power stations. These greedy companies are choosing to develop fossil fuels while trying to drive those developing true renewable energy options out of the market. They have no interest in combatting climate change or energy insecurity, only in making profit.

We don’t want to see investment in gas infrastructure, effectively locking us in to this dangerous and polluting fuel for decades, when there are alternatives available.

At the large scale, alternatives to gas include the well known renewable energy technologies such as solar thermal, wind, solar photovoltaic, hydro and others currently in development like geothermal, wave and tidal power.

Policies like a pollution tax must be accompanied by additional measures that encourage renewable energy development and discourage gas.

At the household scale, gas cooking can be replaced with induction cooktops and gas heating with electric heat pumps (powered with renewable electricity) and solar hot water.

We understand that local councils have a strong attraction to the use of cogeneration and trigeneration, which is currently a cheap way to reduce emissions (compared to coal-fired power) and start generating electricity and heat locally. However, for all the reasons mentioned above, we recommend the following alternatives:

  • Energy efficiency measures;
  • Purchasing greenpower;
  • Installing solar photovoltaic panels and solar hot water;
  • Small-scale hydro[vii], and
  • Directly investing in medium and large scale wind and solar thermal plants

There are potential biofuel sources of gas, for example by processing things like green and food waste. If co-generation and tri-generation are to be considered, then the gas should come from a waste or renewable source.

While most of these measures are currently more expensive than using natural gas, in the medium and long term many will be cheaper.

Now is the time to start investing in a renewable energy future, the time for delay has long passed.