The American Petroleum Institute recently launched an expensive national advertising campaign aimed at promoting gas and oil as effective strategies to combat climate change.[1] Closer to home, Vermont Gas Systems (VGS) has been heavily promoting its plans to combat climate change and introduce “renewable natural gas” into its supply.

Meanwhile, according to a September 2019 report by the independent financial think tank Carbon Tracker, “Oil and gas companies have approved $50 billion of investment since 2018 in major projects that undermine climate targets”[2] contained in the Paris Agreement.

Let’s cut to the chase: investing in the petroleum industry is not the way to solve the climate crisis.

But what about “natural” gas (which, let’s be clear, is no more or less natural than crude oil)? Isn’t that a safer “bridge” fuel to get us to cleaner alternatives like renewable wind and solar technologies?

NO!

And don’t be fooled by all of the expensive advertising that suggests that gas is clean and affordable, compared with other fossil fuels.

Methane is a super-potent greenhouse gas

Remember that gas is a greenhouse gas all by itself. It doesn’t even need to be burned. As Anna Fahey of Sightline Institute explains, “Natural gas releases half as much carbon dioxide as coal when combusted, but what matters for the climate is that methane, a big component of gas, is released into the air at every stage of its life, from well to pipeline to power plant.”[3]

Cornell University’s David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, Robert Howarth, has been a leading voice on the climate threat posed by gas and the fracking operations that produce much of it. Despite the fact that CO2 emissions from fossil fuel are down in the U.S. since 2007 (in part due to the economic recession and switching from coal to natural gas for electricity production), Dr. Howarth noted, “Total greenhouse gas emissions – after dipping slightly in 2007 – have been rising since at their most rapid rate ever, due to shale gas development and large methane emissions.”

In a briefing to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy in June of 2016, Howarth went on to say that, “If the U.S. wants to meet the (Paris Agreement targets to which the country was then committed) – we need to recognize that natural gas – and shale gas, in particular – is not a bridge fuel. We need to move aggressively move toward an economy based on renewable energy.”[4]

Indeed, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the U.S. gas industry as a whole was “responsible for more emissions than coal” for the first time in 2017.[5] Again, Sightline’s Anna Fahey explains that methane is a “super-potent greenhouse gas, which traps 86 times as much heat as CO2 over a 20 year period. And even over the course of a century it is still far more damaging than carbon dioxide.”

Fracking, the method by which gas is commonly extracted from shale deposits, is also part of the problem. In fact, fracking was deemed so unsafe for the environment and public health that the practice was banned by law in Vermont in 2015. Vermont was the first state to take this action.

The fracking process involves blasting rock with millions of gallons of chemical-laden water and sand. It’s been linked to  groundwater contamination, air pollution, toxic chemical exposure, and fracking-induced earthquakes.[6]  Recent peer-reviewed research on the human health impacts of fracking has found that, “Hospitalizations for heart conditions, neurological illness, and other conditions were higher among people who live near unconventional gas and oil drilling (hydraulic fracturing).”[7]

A 2019 study by Cornell’s Dr. Howarth has also linked the recent fracking boom in the U.S. to rising global methane levels, which have in turn accelerated the pace of global warming.[8] Howarth described shale gas (derived from fracking) as a “major player” in rising methane emissions. He also noted that fairly rapid climate benefits could be achieved if humans stopped emitting large quantities of methane into the atmosphere. “It goes away pretty quickly, compared to carbon dioxide. It’s the low-hanging fruit to slow global warming,” he said.[9]

But as long as fracking continues, we will not stop emitting methane into the atmosphere. In fact, methane leaks occur at every stage along the way for natural gas. According to the EPA, gas and petroleum systems are the largest source of methane emissions in the United States.[10] Furthermore, a recent study found that because it underestimates leaks, overall methane emissions may be double what the EPA estimates, and that gas is responsible for ten times more of these methane emissions than EPA estimates.[11]

The gas provided by Vermont Gas Systems is itself largely a product of fracking. It is dirty. It can be dangerous. And it is certainly contributing in a significant way to the climate crisis.

Pipelines can be dangerous

Fracked gas isn’t just a global warming threat, it can also pose an explosive danger to homes and neighborhoods. In 2018, errors made by operators of a gas pipeline in Massachusetts caused a series of explosions and fires that killed one person, injured dozens, and forced thousands of residents to evacuate their homes.[12] Some of these residents were out of their homes for months.

As tragic and devastating as the Massachusetts gas catastrophe was, it was not an anomaly. In fact, recent gas pipeline explosions have killed five in Allentown, Pennsylvania; eight in San Bruno, California; and 10 in southeast New Mexico, to name just a few.[13]

LiveScience, quoting data from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, notes that “across the United States, pipeline failures cause an average of 17 deaths, 68 injuries and $133 million in property damage each year.”[14]

Gas pipelines in Vermont are not as old as pipelines in some parts of the country, and therefore should be at reduced risk of failure. But that doesn’t mean that there is no risk. Gas is an inherently dangerous substance. And in late 2019, an independent investigator’s report did find some problems with the pipeline installation work done by Vermont Gas Systems. Specifically, the report filed with the state Public Utility Commission found that construction plans for the gas pipeline were not stamped by a professional engineer and that parts of the pipeline under a swamp were not buried as deep as required.[15]

Though VGS is undoubtedly on the leading edge of gas companies when it comes to its stated concern over the climate, it’s still a fossil fuel business at its core.

Despite its rhetoric, right now VGS gets less than 5% of its gas from farms or landfills. Most of its gas is derived from fracking. This is not clean. And study after study has made very clear that there simply is no way to create enough non-fossil gas to have it be a significant portion of the gas burned in the US.[16]

What’s more, VGS has made clear that to someday get to their stated goal of “100% renewable” gas they intend to use significant amounts of carbon captured from fossil fuel plants – that’s then turned back into burnable fuel.[17] Let’s be abundantly clear about this: fuel created from the continued operation of fossil fuel power plants is not “renewable.”

Captured carbon needs to be put in the ground, not burned a second time. Calling “syn-gas” (short for “synthetic gas”) “renewable” is greenwashing of the worst kind.

If VGS is serious about taking responsibility for its part in the climate crisis and ultimately eliminating its carbon pollution, it must:

  • Commit to a permanent ban on new fossil fuel pipelines – VGS pipelines included.
  • Stop providing funding for new fossil fuel equipment.
  • Assist its customers in switching to truly clean, electric heat pumps as their primary source of heat and hot water.
  • Reject greenwashing and stop claiming syn-gas that only exists because someone else is still burning fossil fuels is somehow “renewable.”

 

[1] https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/477213-oil-and-gas-organization-launches-campaign-to-portray-itself-as

[2] https://www.carbontracker.org/oil-and-gas-companies-approve-50-billion-of-major-projects-that-undermine-climate-targets-and-risk-shareholder-returns/

[3] https://www.sightline.org/2018/04/04/natural-gas-has-a-dirty-secret/

[4] http://news.cornell.edu/stories/2016/06/howarth-alerts-white-house-growing-methane-danger

[5] https://about.bnef.com/

[6] https://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/health/case_studies/hydrofracking_w.html

[7] News release: “Lower Birth Weight Associated with Proximity of Mother’s Home to Gas Wells”, University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, https://www.upmc.com/media/news/plos-one

[8] https://www.biogeosciences.net/16/3033/2019/

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/14/fracking-causing-rise-in-methane-emissions-study-finds

[10] https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases#methane cute chart on this site too.

[11] https://grist.org/article/natural-gas-leaks-are-a-much-bigger-problem-than-we-thought/

[12] https://boston.cbslocal.com/2018/09/14/lawrence-fires-explosions-gas-main/

[13] https://www.livescience.com/52715-natural-gas-not-as-clean-as-people-think.html

[14] https://www.livescience.com/42632-washington-natural-gas-leaks.html

[15] https://vtdigger.org/2019/12/11/report-finds-vermont-gas-pipeline-is-generally-in-compliance/

[16] https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/2/14/21131109/california-natural-gas-renewable-socalgas

[17] https://legislature.vermont.gov/Documents/2020/WorkGroups/House%20Energy%20and%20Technology/Energy/Fossil%20Fuels/W~Tom%20Murray~Vermont%20Gas%20Today%20and%20Tomorrow%20PowerPoint%20Presentation~4-11-2019.pdf