LNG lobby’s “truth” about CO2 emissions smells fishy

So, a Washington-based lobby group called the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas has come out with a study that analyses the lifecycle emissions of LNG versus coal. The aim of the study is to make sure U.S. legislators “know the truth” about clean-burning LNG as they consider climate-change legislation. Their conclusion — surprise, surprise — is that LNG for power generation contributes, on an apples-to-apples basis, about 70 per cent less greenhouse-gas emissions compared to even the cleanest coal technologies. Put another way, they say that an existing coal power plant in the United States produces two and a half times more greenhouse gas emissions than a comparable LNG power plant.

That sounds, well…. completely unbelievable.

Now, there’s no doubt coal is bad, bad, bad. But I have a problem with LNG — or natural gas in general — being characterized as a climate-change saviour. The fact that an LNG lobby group is making such claims should be enough cause for suspicion. As recently as 2007, a Carnegie Mellon University study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology,  concluded from its own lifecycle analysis that there’s not a huge difference — if any — between the carbon footprint of LNG (or synthetic natural gas, or SNG) and coal when the fuels are used for power generation. Sure, if we’re just talking combustion, then coal emissions are definitely 2 to 2.5 times greater. But when you factor in upstream emissions related to exploration, extraction, transportation, LNG conversion, etc. then the mining and transportation of coal has a much lower carbon footprint. Fugutive emissions alone are a huge concern.

Based on this finding, the Carnegie study concluded: “It is important to re-evaluate whether investing billions of dollars in LNG/SNG infrastructure will lock us into an undesirable energy path that could make future energy decisions costlier and increase the environmental burden from our energy infrastructure.”

Not sure how exactly the Centre for Liquefied Natural Gas study came to its dramatically different conclusion. The contrast between these two studies alone is reason enough to be cautious about LNG infrastructure investments.

13 thoughts on “LNG lobby’s “truth” about CO2 emissions smells fishy”

  1. Sounds like the LNG lobby simply ignored all upstream emissions… “70% less” is about the same as coal having 2.3x as many emissions.

    Or maybe they assumed that all LNG was from stranded gas, which would otherwise be flared, and that the power used to compress the LNG also came from stranded gas. If the gas is going to be flared anyway, then it makes sense to use some of it to power a compressor for the rest, and send it off where it can be useful.

  2. Given how unbelievably dirty coal is I can believe that it is worse than natural gas. Did you know that a coal power plant spews out more radioactivity than a comparably sized fission plant? (coal is *slightly* radioactive, and when it is burned that radioactivity gets released.) Yeah… and it gets spewed straight into the atmosphere instead of being stored in containers and buried. Have you seen the amount of toxic waste (not radioactive waste, just toxic waste:P) that gets dumped straight into rivers from coal plants? Even if you could make coal plants CO2 neutral (and I believe that is indeed possible), coal is so filthy in a conventional sense that it should NEVER be used. It’s god-awful stuff.

    Personally I think that we should be phasing out all fossil fuels, but if we end up having to keep one around for a while, it should be natural gas. It is easy to transport, easy to capture, and extremely clean burning (it is essentially just methane after all). Of course, there is clean natural gas and then there is “dirty” natural gas, where the gas is contaminated with sulphur dioxide and whatnot. If you’re going to use dirty natural gas then it needs to be scrubbed first.

  3. (Kudos to Mr. Hamilton for raising the right questions! Below is our press release in response to the report. -Rory Cox)

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – 11 February 2009

    New Industry-backed LNG Emissions Study Gets It Wrong

    For more information, contact:

    Rory Cox, Pacific Environment, Ph: 415.399.8850 x302

    Bill Powers, Border Power Plant Working Group: Ph: 619.917.2941

    San Francisco, CA – Environmental groups today criticized a new study published by the Center for LNG for falsely claiming that Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) emits, according to their press release, “70 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions on a lifecycle basis than even the cleanest coal technologies.”

    Ratepayers for Affordable Clean Energy (RACE), a coalition of environmental groups advocating for renewable energy as an alternative to increased fossil fuel imports such as LNG, has long advocated for analysis of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. “We welcome industry’s recognition that we must analyze the full lifecycle emissions of LNG to understand how our energy choices contribute to global warming,” said Rory Cox, California Program Director at Pacific Environment. “However, this study gets it wrong.”

    Critics point out that the report omits the most obvious choice to both coal and LNG, which is domestic natural gas. When there are plentiful supplies of less expensive, less polluting and more reliable natural gas in North America, there is simply no need for the extra lifecycle emissions that the report details for imported LNG. “These analyses should compare lifecycle emissions to real alternatives to LNG such as domestic natural gas and renewables,” said Bill Powers of Border Power Plant Working Group.

    RACE’s emissions from 2008 analysis (available at http://www.raceforcleanenergy.org/article.php?id=935 ) demonstrates that an LNG terminal that serves California adds the equivalent emissions of 1 million cars per year, assuming LNG replaces domestic natural gas.

    The Center for LNG’s report also assumes a “one size fits all” number for LNG emissions. However, not all natural gas fields cause the same emissions, which leads the Center for LNG report to understate lifecycle. For instance, gas from the Tangguh field in Indonesia has a much higher carbon content than natural gas fields in the U.S. Rocky Mountains. This can lead to up to a 10 percent “adder” to the additional lifecycle emissions of LNG. This variability has been detailed in three previous studies done on the subject by RACE, Climate Mitigation Services, and by Carnegie Mellon University. Elected officials and the public need to know the carbon footprint of the LNG coming to their state. The generic average LNG carbon footprint in the CLNG study is too broad a brush.

    “Importing LNG is not a solution to the climate crisis,” said Pacific Environment’s Rory Cox, who coordinates the RACE Coalition. “Scientists tell us that the only path to stability is to reduce emissions by 70 percent. LNG will only increase emissions, especially if it just replaces domestic natural gas.”

    Previous studies cited above on the climate impacts of LNG are available at http://www.LNGPollutes.org, or by emailing rcox “at” pacificenvironment.org.

  4. Did you even read the study? It does consider “upstream emissions related to exploration, extraction, transportation, LNG conversion, etc. “.

  5. Of course it measures upstream, that’s why they’re calling it an apples-to-apples lifecycle comparison. That’s not in dispute. What’s in dispute is the findings. If we know that coal, on combustion, already releases twice as much CO2 as natural gas, then the working assumption is that all the upstream processes pre-combustion for LNG have dramatically fewer CO2 emissions than coal. That’s a complete crock.

    Transportation of coal and mining releases minimal CO2 compared to natural gas. But add LNG into the mix and you’ve got more potential for fugitive emissions as well as the energy used to ship this stuff from other continents and the energy required to compress and decompress the gas. It strikes me as a leap of logic to suggest that would be less carbon-intensive that mining and transporting coal. I’m not saying the numbers in the study aren’t there. I’m saying they’re wrong, and the more independent Carnegie Mellon study confirms that.

  6. “The fact that an LNG lobby group is making such claims should be enough cause for suspicion.”

    Isn’t that veering a little bit into ad hominem territory? The only “cause for suspicion” anyone should need is the natural empirical skepticism with which any data set should be treated until verified, and the only reason to accept or reject data should be the results of that verification (which really, to be fair, should be checked against more than just one other study, no matter one’s opinion of the comparative bias or lack thereof).

    “Sure, if we’re just talking combustion, then coal emissions are definitely 2 to 2.5 times greater. But when you factor in upstream emissions related to exploration, extraction, transportation, LNG conversion, etc. then the mining and transportation of coal has a much lower carbon footprint.”

    I have to admit I could use some more explanation on that. Why is the LNG upstream emissions footprint so much greater than coal’s? And is it really so much greater that LNG’s reduced combustion/use emissions when compared to coal’s can’t compensate, especially when economy of scale kicks in? You’d think that by weight and volume alone coal would be more energy- (and emission-)intensive to get out of the ground.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the claim that LNG offers no real overall emission reduction benefit, but comparative statistical analysis of such complex fields as this tends to leave enough room for overlooked data as to make different conclusions both possible and honest.

  7. Well, as much as I’d like to verify this with my own study, I’ll have to settle for being skeptical. The post is aimed at expressing an opinion and opening that up for debate. Intuitively, based on my knowledge of both sectors and how they operate, and based on a previous independent study I’ve seen that validates this, and based on my knowledge of fugitive emissions and how they go underreported in the natural gas sector, I’m going to stick with my original position.

    For the record, I didn’t say LNG and coal were equal on emissions, I said the gap is narrower than the LNG group study makes it out to be. Even more narrow depending on where the LNG is coming from. If it’s coming to the U.S. east coast from Trinidad, then it’s not so bad. If it’s coming from Russia or China, then you have to factor in added transportation-related emissions. Coal is sent much shorter distances by train. Also, don’t underestimate the amount of energy it takes to compress and decompress the gas, as well as the methane that escapes during this process. The key thing here is methane — fugitive methane emissions in every step of the LNG process are 21-times CO2’s potency. Coal mining and transportation doesn’t release much methane.

  8. Tyler, has it occurred to you to ask *why* coal is only transported small distances? It is because VAST amounts of coal need to be burned (train after train after train after train, all day and night) to see any appreciable return on your initial energy investment; if you have to transport that coal for more than a very short distance, then you end up with a net energy deficit.

    Natural gas on the other hand is regularly transported ’round the world, yet still manages to maintain a sizable net energy surplus, despite transportation losses.

    So let’s try and compare apples-to-apples. Natural Gas is moved great distances because it is easy to move. Coal simply can’t fill that same roll. So you can’t simply say “coal produces less CO2 than natural gas” (which isn’t true in any case), because coal is used in a far more restrictive fashion. If Natural Gas was used for nothing but electricity production, then the electricity plants could be right beside the gas fields (like how coal plants are right beside mines), meaning far less CO2 production (and methane leak) due to transportation would take place. But that isn’t the case, is it? Most Natural Gas is used for things like heating, and therefore needs to be sent straight to the consumer. I dare you to try that with coal. It’s been done in the past, and it doesn’t work well at all.

    Therefore this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. It’s similar saying, “solar works great in the Sahara Desert, so clearly it will work great in Inuvik as well!!” It’s simply not a valid comparison to make.

  9. Gopher65,

    Glad you like WordPress. I’m happy I made the switch, too.

    Regarding your earlier comment about LNG. We’ve got to keep in mind what LNG in North America is for — marginal supply. That’s not from using natural gas to heat our homes, that’s for electricity generation mostly. The talk of building LNG facilities is to support another dash-to-gas by the power sector. So when comparing, yes, I’m comparing coal and LNG for power generation. I agree you can’t ship coal to everyone’s home, and natural gas is terrific for home heating, but we’ve got enough domestic natural gas for this without the need for LNG.

    And sorry, I didn’t say “coal produces less CO2 than natural gas.” Please READ my post. I said when LNG is factored in the gap between coal and natural gas narrows.

  10. I’m not saying the numbers in the study aren’t there. I’m saying they’re wrong, and the more independent Carnegie Mellon study confirms that.

    Transportation of coal and mining releases minimal CO2 compared to natural gas.
    Depending on the mine, coal mining release significant fugitive CH4. Pipeline have fugitive emissions
    natural gas and LNG processing have fugitive emissions as well, all of which are accounted for in the study.

    “The working assumption is that all the upstream processes pre-combustion for LNG have dramatically fewer CO2 emissions than coal. ”

    This study doesn’t use that as a working assumption, it details the individual contribution of each step of the process. If one has a critique of some indivivdual estimate, make a critique on technical grounds.

    I agree your protest is completely ad hominem, framed by preconceptions, and without any stated technical merit.

  11. It seems these lobbies get bogged down in details. LNG is a little cleaner burning than gasoline and coal, yes. However, the ideal role of LNG is to transition away from petroleum and coal until we find even cleaner energy sources. It’s a transition medium, and should be used as such. It makes sense in big rigs until we can sort out a non-polluting energy storage and propulsion that can move heavy vehicles. If it only removes our dependence from petroleum to do the same for natural gas, then the benefits are only environmental. We need to have a longer strategic plan and stop looking at the immediate future.

    Nick
    Electricnick.com

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