By: Ted Gleichman
National and Oregon Sierra Club teams, as members of a vibrant coalition of many of Oregon’s most important environmental groups, have now assembled the latest climate science studies to answer one of the most important questions about liquefied natural gas (LNG):
We know that the proposed LNG terminals and pipelines in Oregon, and the fracking fields needed to serve them, would cause monumental environmental and economic damage.
But could burning North American natural gas in
Asia actually be good for the global climate?
Climate science now shows that both LNG export and natural gas production are climate killers – just like every other fossil fuel.
Click on the links below to read our one page science summary or the expanded eight page summary:
Gas is a Gangplank, Not a Bridge
Natural gas can no longer be considered a “bridge to the future.” As Sierra Club executive director Mike Brune puts it, “natural gas is not a bridge – it’s a gangplank.”
Despite the scientific findings to the contrary, the industry continues to claim that natural gas is actually “clean.” Industry advertising surrounds us, pitching the bright future with gas. Even many of us who have long known that no fossil fuel is actually clean – that all fossil fuels are dirty sources of carbon pollution – thought for a long time that natural gas was “the best of the worst” – the least dirty. But now we know that was a myth, and we must face the reality.
The Myth: “Now You’re Cookin’ With Gas!”
Here’s why this myth came to dominate our old understanding.
First, natural gas, post-refinery, is essentially pure methane. When you burn methane, it emits only carbon dioxide and water vapor. That’s why it’s reasonably safe to burn in your kitchen, and why we’ve felt good about it, personally.
Second, at the point of combustion, burning methane puts out only about half as much carbon dioxide as, say, burning coal. It’s still putting out dirty carbon pollution, but at a lower rate. That’s why we’ve felt good about it economically and politically.
But the key to this second point is “the point of combustion.” That turns out to be just a small piece of a global puzzle. It completely ignores the long, complex natural gas supply chain.
It’s like saying that milk is invented inside the supermarket in plastic jugs. Turns out there’s a history for supermarket milk, including grass, cows, pasteurization, trucks, fossil fuels for plastic-jug manufacturers, and so on.
The same thing applies to methane, and the key issue for the climate is methane leakage.
The Reality: Fugitive Methane Emissions are Deadly for the Planet
Methane leaks at every stage of the natural gas supply chain. It leaks at the well, during drilling and production, and wellhead leakage rates get worse as wells age and well casings decay and fail. Methane leaks in pipeline transmission from the well fields, in processing and refining at multiple steps along the way, and in pipeline distribution to consumers after it’s been refined.
Methane also leaks throughout the LNG process: during pipeline delivery from wellhead to terminal; during liquefaction, ocean transport, re-gasification, and redistributing by pipelines and tanker trucks in the destination country.
These fugitive methane emissions are critical factors in the overall life-cycle pollution of natural gas because, molecule for molecule, methane is MUCH more dangerous to the planet than carbon dioxide. Unburned methane is a much more potent heat-trapping greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assesses methane impact over a twenty-year period as having a global warming potential 86 times greater than carbon dioxide. Over a 100-year period, methane presents a global-warming effect 34 times that of carbon dioxide – still a massive imbalance, with dangerous ramifications.
Because methane is such a devastating greenhouse gas, even tiny leaks have an enormously destructive climate impact. Variations that may superficially seem small – say, from a rate of 1.5% spiking to 3% – drastically increase overall pollution.
As the new science shows, methane leakage is endemic, and so severe that natural gas production and LNG export are inherently deadly to the planet. They offer no advantage over other fossil fuels.
The LNG Export Assault on Oregon
We face two sets of massive LNG export terminals and the pipelines needed to feed them, aimed at the corners of our coast:
— Oregon LNG, Warrenton. For this $7 billion project, the pipeline would run 220 miles, from the Canadian border to Woodland, Washington, then under the Columbia River for one mile (!), and across Columbia and Clatsop counties. The industrial terminal, with its two twenty-story liquefaction tanks, would be built on dredged land, just inside the mouth of the Columbia, in Warrenton, on the Youngs Bay steelhead and salmon breeding grounds, across from Astoria.
— Jordan Cove, Coos Bay. For this project, another $7 billion, the pipeline would run 234 miles from Malin (near Klamath Falls), across Klamath, Jackson, Douglas and Coos counties, traversing more than 400 rivers, streams, and wetlands, and crossing the most rugged and dangerous part of the Coast range. The industrial terminal, with two 22-story liquefaction tanks, would be built on a Coos Bay sand spit.
Both projects would suck massive quantities of fracked gas out of the entire western half of North America. These methane exports would ship to Asia under 20-year contracts. Proponents cite two good reasons to build them: jobs, and helping the climate.
LNG Jobs are NOT “Good” Jobs
Now we know the climate claim is bogus. The jobs argument is false too. LNG jobs are not “good” jobs because LNG export is bad for the planet – as well as being bad for Oregon, environmentally and economically. No job that damages the climate, the environment, and the broader economy can be considered a good job.
What the Oregon Coast needs, instead of $14 Billion of fossil-fuels investment in the two destructive and dangerous LNG pipeline and terminal projects, is a two-fold alternative:
- Invest in Seismic and Tsunami Safety. First, we sit on the most dangerous earthquake and tsunami zone in North America, the Cascadia subduction zone. We are guaranteed to suffer a catastrophic break, the mirror image of the 2011 Tohoku-Fukashima fracture, at a minimum of Magnitude 8, and an eventual Magnitude 9. The odds of that massive earthquake, and the huge tsunami that will result, happening during the planned lifespan of the proposed LNG export projects are well over 50%.
- Invest in Decentralized Renewable Energy and Energy Reform. Second, we all know the climate requires the complete conversion away from fossil energy to sustainable renewable energy. And renewable energy is completely ready for prime time, technologically and economically. The only barriers to a sustainable energy economy are political: the destructive subsidized power of the fossil fuels companies.
Therefore, half this $14 Billion of investment needs to be channeled into seismic upgrades, earthquake-proof reconstruction, and relocation out of the tsunami zone. The other half needs to go for the development of decentralized, community-based renewable energy, with smart grids for resilience and a universal upgrading of efficiency and conservation in energy use.
This two-part jobs program is feasible. Financing for it can be structured. It would dwarf these LNG projects in short- and long-term jobs, and would provide a vital permanent contribution to our economic and environmental health.
We Need Genuine Good Jobs
We’ll talk in detail about jobs over the next few months. Genuine good jobs are vital; hundreds of thousands of people here in Oregon are still suffering from the 2008 Great Recession brought on by the megabanks. But LNG jobs are not “good” jobs: we can do better, and we must.
In the meantime, the climate science is clear: No longer can anyone say that LNG export is good for the planet.
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Ted Gleichman has chaired the Beyond LNG Team of the Oregon Sierra Club since 2011, and served on the National Leadership Team of Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas Campaign from 2012-14.