Demolition Begins On Original Bay Bridge Span Damaged By Earthquake

A new report released by the Canadian Pembina Institute and the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions looks at British Columbia’s (B.C.) liquefied natural gas (LNG) strategy to serve the lucrative Asian gas market through the prism of global climate change in a carbon-constrained world. “Natural gas is often described as a bridge fuel. The question is, how long should that bridge be?” says Josha MacNab, B.C. Regional Director for the Pembina Institute.

Matt Horne, B.C. Associate Regional Director for the Pembina Institute, further elaborates on the B.C.-specific LNG export case in a global context that “[w]ithout a global push for low carbon energy sources and efficiency, LNG will likely worsen rather than ease global warming.” The analysis brings to light interesting findings and debunks – by the way, as other scientific studies have done before – the still prevalent myth of natural gas as the climate savior. Natural gas serving as ‘bridge’ to a desired low-carbon future has to be ‘short’ from a time perspective in order to not be counterproductive with respect to the overall climate objective, or in the words of one of the report’s authors, Josha MacNab: “Our research suggests it must be very short if we’re going to be able to get off the bridge in time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

The report’s main finding is that absent stronger policies on an international level aimed at curtailing carbon pollution, continued strong demand for fossil fuels will inevitably push the planet towards perilous climate change. “[N]atural gas has a role to play in a world that avoids 2°C of warming, but that role is unlikely to materialize unless shaped by strong climate change policies in the jurisdictions that produce and consume the gas. Because these policies are not currently in place, claiming that natural gas (…) is a climate solution is inaccurate. Making more natural gas available is unlikely to change that conclusion, unless the current gulf in international policy is bridged,” the report stresses.

Specifically, the authors challenge two assumptions often made by government officials when enlisting ‘clean’ natural gas in helping to reduce overall GHG emissions in the atmosphere. The first assumption is that lifecycle GHG emissions of natural gas are lower than those of coal resulting in – the second assumption – a decline of coal use due to a simultaneous surge in natural gas supply. In this respect, even though the report finds that “the balance of evidence supports the first assumption [in most cases] as long as methane emissions are minimized,” the authors emphasize that a simple comparison to coal in order to gauge climate impact misses the bigger picture of the broader mix of competing energy sources’ impact on total emissions. As for the second assumption, the report regards it as “flawed” given that coal and natural gas are obviously not the only options, making the salient point that “[c]limate policy, not the availability of natural gas, determines coal use.”

In sum, with relatively weak climate policies across the globe, natural gas will not necessarily reduce coal use across the globe – as evidenced by projections of continuously surging coal use in developing countries – and therefore will not mitigate climate change. Conversely, only strong climate policies accompanied by higher levels of energy efficiency and more demand for renewable as well as nuclear energy will reasonably lift chances of mitigating climate change while providing a realistic path for transitioning away from carbon-intensive fossil fuels.

“Natural gas is often described as a bridge fuel. The question is, how long should that bridge be?” says Josha MacNab, B.C. Regional Director for the Pembina Institute.

The following chart illustrates how climate policies impact natural gas demand in two scenarios. The report’s authors distinguish two scenarios with distinct implications for natural gas demand over the century. In a “standard stock turnover” scenario – i.e. replacement of energy infrastructure (e.g. old inefficient coal-fired plants) at the end of its designed operational life span – global natural gas demand is expected to rise steadily until by mid-century it reaches a virtual plateau and then very slowly declines towards 2100.

In the “accelerated stock turnover” scenario – i.e. replacement of energy infrastructure prior to the end of its designed operational life span due to adjusted climate policy (e.g. levy of a carbon tax) and/or other economic considerations – natural gas demand reaches a peak – already in 2030 – much faster than in the above scenario primarily because coal is being phased out at a faster pace over the same period. That increase is followed by a precipitous decline towards 2100, which indicates that now also natural gas infrastructure is being mothballed ahead of designed operational life span due to reduced overall fossil fuel demand “in favour of near zero-carbon energy sources” and the concomitant merit order effect.

How Global Climate Policies Impact Natural Gas Demand  

roman bridge1

Source: Pembina Institute

“Without such adjustments [in the accelerated scenario], the near-term elimination of coal and associated rapid increase in gas supply are unlikely to occur,” the report contends. The next chart shows clearly that renewables, nuclear energy, and energy efficiency gains are to drive this transition. Indeed, it is noticeable where natural gas is positioned.

Transition Drivers: The Near Zero-Carbon Energy Sources

roman bridge2

Source: IEA via Pembina Institute

Note, the reason for this position is that throughout the lifecycle of natural gas, methane escapes into the atmosphere harming the climate. Usually two complementary approaches are employed when measuring methane emissions: a ‘bottom-up’ approach focuses on the specific source causing the emissions while a ‘top-down’ approach makes inferences about respective emissions from measurements of methane concentrations in the atmosphere in the vicinity of the source or sources. Nevertheless, methane data and estimates of respective emissions continue to entail considerable uncertainty as for cumulative impacts.

The report nicely addresses reasons why methane from natural gas production is underestimated and why methane emissions are being undervalued (Read the full Pembina report here). Another research study by Eric A. Kort of the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) et alia underscores this “need to more accurately measure emissions from fossil-fuel extraction to assess mitigation strategies” and thus again points to the need of low-carbon energy sources.

Lastly, the Pembina report also highlights the importance of nuclear energy in tackling climate change. This is something not everybody would agree with due to the often disproportionate focus on dangers such as radiation, waste disposal/storage, and proliferation. In this context, it may be wise to consider former EPA Administrator Carol Browner’s recent remarks with respect to nuclear energy, as quoted in The Hill: “Here in the U.S., if we were to take off the table an existing source of carbon-free energy, it would simply be irresponsible. (…) Today’s most pressing problem is climate change, and so it’s time to rethink your position.”