This morning one of my regular foils on Twitter posted a surprising tweet:
Mr. Wiebe is an outspoken environmentalist with expertise in the field of climate change and climate modelling so I was a bit surprised by this tweet? What could possibly be so wrong with an advertisement about renewable natural gas (RNG) that would warrant a complaint to Advertising Standards Canada?
I asked Mr. Wiebe about his tweet; specifically what he had against renewable natural gas? He provided a one-word response “Srsly?” [slang for Seriously?]. Now since I really had no clue what he found objectionable I asked again. Mr. Wiebe wasn’t terribly forthcoming regarding his complaint, but to the best of my understanding his argument was against any form of “natural gas” being called a “sustainable energy choice”. Apparently in his mind “natural gas” has to be a bad thing and cannot be sustainable? In the next few paragraphs I will explain why RNG is indeed a sustainable energy choice and why reflexive environmental negativism, as evidenced in our exchange, is so damaging to the environmental cause in BC.
The obvious first question to ask is: what is RNG? To answer that question I will refer to the good people at Fortis BC (our provincial natural gas supplier):
Renewable natural gas (RNG) is a 100 per cent carbon neutral energy source. When bacteria breaks down organic waste from sources – primarily farms, landfills and wastewater treatment facilities – biogas is created. The gas is captured, purified, and blended into natural gas distribution pipelines and delivered to homes, businesses, transportation fleets, and industry. Customers don’t need to upgrade furnaces, water heaters and other equipment to use RNG.
Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it? Fortis (or any other supplier) traps gas produced by natural processes, that would otherwise be vented into the atmosphere, and makes use of those trapped emissions for energy. Making use of these emissions for energy both replaces the need to get that energy from another source and is a much better alternative to what has traditionally been done with those emissions: flaring biogas like torches in the night or simply letting it waft away like we see at virtually every sewage treatment plant in BC. Imagine harnessing that energy for good? Well that is what RNG is all about.
As anyone familiar with the topic of climate change knows, agricultural and municipal emissions of methane represent a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions (16% of global emissions according to the IPCC). Reducing agricultural and municipal emissions of methane represents a necessary step in achieving our global goal of capping greenhouse gas emissions.
From a climate perspective RNG is considered carbon-neutral. How is this you ask, since it burns a fuel and generates carbon dioxide? To answer that question you have to consider the gases involved. As the atmospheric chemists from the EPA explain:
Methane’s lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide, but methane is more efficient at trapping radiation than carbon dioxide. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period
This means that if we can trap methane before it escapes to the atmosphere and convert it to carbon dioxide (while generating energy) we can actually reduce global climate forcings. This has the effect of reducing the net effect on the atmosphere and meets the definition of carbon neutrality.
As for RNG being sustainable? Well as long as people and animals continue to poo and plants die there will be biological materials that need to decompose. The natural decomposition of human, animal and vegetable wastes generates methane. This is a fact of nature and has been the case since long before humanity began messing with global atmospheric concentrations. Since the plan is that humans and animals will be on the planet for the foreseeable future, we have a sustainable source of the gas.
As for burning natural gas being evil; well irrespective of what some will say, natural gas is not readily-replaceable in our modern society. That is why when the City of Vancouver prepared its “Zero Emissions Building Plan” it left open the use of RNG within the City. The City recognized that it had to allow restaurants, which rely on natural gas for cooking, and existing buildings, that cannot be retro-fitted, to continue to use RNG in lieu of the traditional fossil fuel-derived natural gas. You might ask what’s so special about restaurants? Well there is a good reason why the old adage “they are cooking with gas” is used; because for some foodstuffs gas or wood stoves represents the only way to generate a desired culinary outcome and typically gas does a better job than wood at providing a consistent cooking temperature.
By now you are probably asking: why would someone knowledgeable in the field of climate change say no to a carbon-neutral, sustainable source of renewable natural gas? I asked myself that question and since Mr. Wiebe refused to clarify I had to come up with my own answer. My best guess is pretty simple: some activists have a reflexive need/desire to say No! They seldom find things that they are for, but they are quick to find things that they are against.
I’m not sure what feeds this desire to always go to the negative response but at times it seems to be entirely reflexive. As appears to be the case in this example, it occurs before they even go through the exercise of understanding the problem and balancing the positives and the negatives. It represents their default position. In this case he reflexively considered that natural gas is a “fossil fuel” therefore, by definition, it must be bad and we must fight against it. Let’s ignore the fact that RNG is not a fossil fuel at all, RNG is a naturally occurring byproduct of ongoing biological processes.
This reflexive need to “get to no” by the environmental community represents an ongoing barrier to the advancement of renewable energy projects and alternatives to fossil fuels in BC. As an example consider that activists have long argued that we should be taking advantage of geothermal energy, but when the BC government proposed a law to enable the drilling necessary to identify possible geothermal projects the activists were pretty uniform in their opposition to the Bill. Hydroelectric power is the obvious baseload complement to renewable energy sources but try telling that to the environmental activists who oppose the Site C Dam or the expansion of run-of-river hydro across the province. I leave it to your imagination what the response would be if the government suggested a new nuclear plant anywhere in Canada…the mind boggles at the outrage. This reflexive negativism explains why politicians aren’t willing to advance novel environmental projects. If you can’t even get political backing from the environmentalists for a renewable energy project then why waste any political capital on it.
As I have written before, Canada has made commitments under the Paris Agreement and to meet those commitments will call for compromises. These are compromises that the environmental activists appear completely unwilling to make. Today’s RNG exchange represents a microcosm of the bigger problems facing Canadians in a post-Paris Agreement world. We have reflexive and mindless, anti-everything environmentalists who aren’t even willing to clarify what they are actually against. Politicians are just supposed to guess. To close, I will simply point to the conclusion of my discussion with Mr. Wiebe. I asked him to clarify, what was wrong with renewable natural gas and his reply was telling:
In retrospect it appears that he didn’t even know what RNG was when he made the complaint. All he saw was the words “natural gas” and “sustainable” and that was all he needed to make his complaint.