I have to admit something. Every time I read an article by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), I hope that it will present an evidence-based analysis consistent with the quality of the individuals who I know work there. Sadly, more often than not I am disappointed. I could probably fill an entire section of my blog with pieces debunking analyses by the CCPA. Thus, it was with trepidation that I approached an “Opinion” piece in The Globe And Mail called LNG’s big lie by my regular foil Economist Marc Lee. In this blog post I will go over some of the more egregious issues I had with this article.
The article starts with three introductory paragraphs.
The federal government is seeking to use a clause in the Paris Agreement on climate change to get emissions credits for exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Asian countries.
This plan is nonsensical for a number of reasons, but at its heart is the big lie that LNG will help to reduce global emissions. No one should take such claims seriously.
The grain of truth upon which this claim is made is simple: at the point of combustion, gas is about half as emissions-intensive as coal to deliver the same amount of energy.
These paragraphs demonstrate that the author disagrees with the Federal government on their interpretation of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement (which provides mechanisms for the trading of emission credits) and then follows it up with a demonstration that he does not understand the climate math underlying the BC LNG industry….but that becomes clear as the article continues.
The next three paragraphs provide a simple guide to the LNG industry. They mostly emphasize how challenging it is to get LNG. Presumably this filler was intended to imply that these efforts cause excessive greenhouse gas emissions. The problem is that Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is an actual field of study and real LCAs have been done on LNG in both Canada and the US. I can only presume the author is hoping that Globe readers are unaware of the academic literature on this topic.
The next paragraph is where the interesting stuff starts to happen:
Taken together, one-fifth of the gas must be consumed in the liquefaction, transport and regasification processes. These processes all lead to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and thus substantially reduce the emissions advantage relative to coal.
This “one-fifth” number is derived from an older CCPA report that I have previously debunked. In that case the author of the CCPA report decided to take the results of a US National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) study Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Perspective on Exporting Liquefied Natural Gas from the United States for an export facility from New Orleans to Shanghai, and applied them for a Canadian LNG project exporting LNG from Prince Rupert to Shanghai (only adjusting for tanker shipping distance). The problem with using the NETL data is that the numbers are simply irrelevant in the BC context.
The NETL study, written in 2014, includes lower efficiency compressors, assumes leaky pipelines, in very hot climates and, as I discuss in my earlier blog post, is simply not relevant to the Canadian experience. The compressors to be used in Canada are more efficient and our regulatory system is stricter. This results in substantial efficiencies which essentially halve the number presented in the Opinion piece. So no, the one-fifth number isn’t close to our current technological state.
On the topic of coal the next paragraph is even more egregious.
Coal, in contrast, may be dirty in terms of emissions, but getting it to market is relatively easy compared with gas. Coal can be dug up, put on rail cars and shipped to its final destination.
Where to start on this one? Around 10% of the entire life cycle emissions of coal (including its eventual combustion) come from digging it up and shipping it to market. That 10% may sound small but when you look at the numbers it represents almost 25% of the emissions generated by the combustion of natural gas. This is not a rounding error and for the CCPA to treat it as such is simply ridiculous.
Moreover, the statement also ignores the methane emissions associated with mining coal. As described in a recent study of the Marcellus Shale play “a significant portion (~70%) of the emitted CH4 [in the region] was found to originate likely from coalbeds.” From an upstream perspective, coal is far worse than natural gas when the fugitive methane emissions are incorporated into the climate math.
Now for the next paragraph
The other emissions problem with gas is that leaks occur at various points along the supply chain from wellhead to final combustion. Recent studies have found that these leaks are much larger than have been reported by industry and governments.
The study the CCPA is talking about is by Alvarez et al. in Science which calculated that 2.3% of US production of LNG was lost in the form of fugitive emissions which they argue wipes out the savings in using LNG for power. The problem with the Alvarez results is that they aren’t applicable to the Canadian context.
The Alvarez paper relies on top-down surveys (airplane surveys) in selected US gas fields and extrapolates these results to the US (and Canada). The problem with this extrapolation is that geology and regulations matter. BC LNG is deeper, with newer infrastructure, more sour gas and different regulatory standards than the US fields studied by Alvarez. All four of these factors matter in this debate As an example, our stricter regulatory structures have essentially eliminated flaring and strongly encourage green completions and encourage the use of electricity in on-site equipment. All of which significantly reduce our fugitive emissions.
Moreover, since much of our gas is sour (read poisonous), the type of release considered common in Texas or Pennsylvania would result in mass casualties in BC.
As I noted, the Alvarez paper relies on airplane surveys to measure fugitive emissions. These types of surveys have well-understood issues that I address in detail in this blog post. The most important is temporal variability.
Recent research shows that the time when the planes fly really effects their results. The paper makes the observation that the flights used by researchers (like Alvarez et al.) to measure methane only happen during daytime hours (usually in the middle of the day), during the spring/summer on on clear days. This coincides with when maintenance on natural gas facilities (which requires that they flush their systems) typically occurs. As such, the research concludes that top-down surveys will almost always significantly overestimate total emissions.
For an analogy, it would be like traffic counters only working during rush hour and then extrapolating those rush hour conditions over the entire 24 hour day including the middle of the night.
Now you would think at this point it wouldn’t get worse, and yet it does. The next paragraph goes:
Even very small leaks of methane can wipe out any remaining advantage for gas relative to coal. Methane is short lived, breaking down in about 12 years into carbon dioxide and water, but while it is in the atmosphere it is 100 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide.
What the author is trying to do is introduce the concept of global warming potential (GWP). GWP is important because methane has a shorter atmospheric half-life (it breaks down more quickly) than carbon dioxide but acts more quickly during its short life. Specialists, disagree whether one should consider the 20-year or 100-year potential of methane, since the IPCC has established that GWP can vary from 28 times (100-year) to 84 times (20-year). The EPA uses a number that includes feedbacks to give ranges of 28-36 times for 20-year and 84-86 times for 100-year. Now looking at these numbers the one number you do not see is the “100 times” cited in the opinion piece. I simply can’t figure where that figure comes from, but certainly not the field of climate studies.
Herein lies the challenge in debunking bad opinion pieces. The original article is only 680 words and I am already at twice that number and only halfway through the piece. So I will speed this up.
In this discussion of leaks the author is careful to to avoid using actual numbers. I can only guess this is because he doesn’t want you to know that his argument doesn’t hold water using what we know about fugitive emissions. The International Energy Agency has debunked his argument and even given us a nice graphic for typical natural gas facilities. As it makes clear at typical fugitive emission levels natural gas is better than coal in greenhouse gas intensity.
Remember this graph is for typical American facilities. As we know from our past analyses BC LNG can produce the same product with 80% of the emissions of our competitors. Our LNG is cleaner and greener. Even a typical US facility makes climate sense when leakage is less than 2.6% (from a 20-year perspective). Yet even the worst number provided by Alvarez is 2.3% and the Canadian numbers are estimated to be in the 1% range. The climate math says LNG is a lot cleaner than coal.
Now we are in the home stretch let’s look at the next three paragraphs.
Finally, we need to think about where Canadian gas is being exported. While it’s plausible our natural gas could displace coal use in China, it could also simply contribute to higher overall energy demand, adding to emissions on top of coal. Or LNG could displace renewables in China’s evolving energy mix.
If exports go to Japan or Korea, the two biggest LNG importers, they would most likely displace cleaner energy sources and therefore increase global GHG emissions.
Even to the limited extent that China may be able to reduce its emissions by switching from coal to gas, it is not suddenly going to hand over the emissions credit to Canada. That’s not how emissions accounting works.
These paragraphs appear to consist of wishful thinking by the author. He imagines that Japan is not building new coal capacity at this very moment. The problem is that is not true. Look at their coal plant tracker or the EIA analysis of the country. Japan is building coal facilities because they can’t get enough natural gas and they need back-up for all the renewables they are installing now that the NGO’s have scared them off nuclear.
As for China, well I have a blog post showing how China is building synthetic natural gas plants to convert coal to natural gas, so the suggestion that China doesn’t need natural gas simply doesn’t hold water either.
I think I am going to stop here. Having looked at 10 paragraphs and found significant issues with virtually every one, I have simply run out of gas. The question I have to ask is: where were the editors with this piece? When I was a younger lad an Opinion piece in the local paper was proofed and fact-checked by the paper to ensure its contents were fact-based. Back then it was believed that best “Opinions” were those supported by facts. Editors didn’t let things like “100 times more heat-trapping” get through the editing process.
Reading this piece I am reminded of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan quote: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” I only wish the Editors of the Globe would ensure that Opinion writers didn’t come with their own facts.
Addendum: the Author responds
While I was on vacation, the author of the Globe piece (Marc Lee) responded in the comments section. I have pulled his comment up to the text so everyone could see it. My original instinct was to provide a detailed reply but instead I will simply provide links and highlights debunking his responses. Below I have his comment indented in italics and my reply thereafter.
I’ve been on vacation but it was fun to see what you made of my article. Sadly, you don’t do a very good job of rebutting my core arguments. You don’t address the central argument that Canada cannot get credit for its LNG exports, and most of what you write is an ad hominem attack on me and the CCPA. Tip: Writing in a condescending tone does not win an argument.
What is particularly funny about this response is that it is clear that Marc doesn’t even understand what an ad hominem attack entails? I don’t attack him or the CCPA, I attack his argument throughout.
As for this argument, the federal government made clear Article 6 of the Paris Agreement provides a means by which Canada could earn credits for our LNG exports. All it requires is that Canada choose to provide an inducement to the receiving country (likely in the form of a rate cut) to earn the credit.
Your main challenge is around the differences in lifecycle emissions between LNG and coal, and the IEA figure you show highlights some of the trade-offs wrt leakage. But if you read the original (https://www.iea.org/newsroom/news/2017/october/commentary-the-environmental-case-for-natural-gas.html) you would see that they don’t consider LNG at all, and a key point of my article was the energy required for liquefaction, which reduces the advantage of LNG relative to coal.
This claim is simply a red herring since Marc specifically states in the piece “This plan is nonsensical for a number of reasons, but at its heart is the big lie that LNG will help to reduce global emissions. No one should take such claims seriously.” As I have shown in my previous blog post the climate math makes it abundantly clear that Canadian LNG can reduce global emissions. Nowhere does Marc provide any actually numbers to support his argument because every legitimate source supports my argument, not his.
Your comments on GWP are highly misleading. If 100-year GWP is 34 and 20-year GWP is 86, then what is a 12-year GWP? That is how long methane stays in the atmosphere before breaking down into carbon dioxide and water. Here’s a reference that backs my statement of 100 times over 12 years: https://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/summaries_CH4.php
This response says more about the author than I could ever do myself. No legitimate organization uses a 12-year GWP. The standard GWP used by the IPCC is the 100-year GWP. Recently some organizations have chosen to use the 20-year GWP but when they do so they preface it by clearly stating they are using the 20-year GWP. To use a 12-year GWP, without prefacing it as a 12-year figure appears to represent an attempt to deliberately deceive an uninformed public. Nothing I have written to date discredits him more than his admission that he deliberately chose to cite a 12-year GWP without declaring that fact out front.
Your comment that US results on methane leaks are not applicable in BC is a misdirection. Part of the problem is that we are taking industry’s word for it and not doing independent measurement. But studies that have find conventional estimates are an under-estimation:
This is another case of Marc choosing the road less traveled and it is less-traveled because the sources he provides are not legitimate and have been utterly de-bunked. I go into the de-bunking of the Atherton paper here and the Suzuki paper here. The Scientific Review of Hydraulic Fracturing (SRHF) singled out the Atherton report because follow-up work by the regulator demonstrated its results were not valid. The fact that after the SRHF utterly discredited the work, Marc still chose to rely on it, speaks volumes.
I also note that in a previous critique of me you cite Kasumu et al as debunking my and David Hughes argument. Hmmm, the actual article is much more nuanced and does not back that claim. They state: “Results show that while the ultimate magnitude of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with natural gas production systems is still unknown, life cycle greenhouse gas emissions depend on country-level infrastructure (specifically, the efficiency of the generation fleet, transmission and distribution losses and LNG ocean transport distances) as well as the assumptions on what is displaced in the domestic electricity generation mix. Exogenous events such as the Fukushima nuclear disaster have unanticipated effects on the emissions displacement results. We highlight national regulations, environmental policies, and multilateral agreements that could play a role in mitigating emissions.”
Marc claims that the Kasumu article is nuanced, and yes it is…the problem is the nuance doesn’t erase the numbers it presents or the numbers presented both in my piece and in numerous supporting documents. When compared to the existing and in-progress facilities in China and India Canadian LNG will reduce global emissions. There is a reason Marc doesn’t provide any real numbers in his piece, because every real number shoots down his argument.
At best, you can argue there is a plausible range of impacts, from LNG slightly better than coal to worse that coal, and those depend on what assumptions one makes about which export markets, what fuels are displaced, methance leakages, and plant performance, including what the actual performance of LNG Canada will be once constructed (as opposed to the claims they make before hand).
Which is basically what I say in the article
This comment is simply not true. I can’t say this enough, for him to make this claim is simply not supported by the literature. The “plausible range” for BC export to Asia goes from BC LNG being almost 2 times cleaner than coal (with electrification of the compression step and China using SNG) to BC LNG being slightly better than coal (using natural gas for every step andd an excessive methane leakage rate compared to the highest-efficiency coal). Every legitimate life cycle analysis supports my position on this. The one exception is the CCPA LCA which is fatally flawed and even then it has to struggle to make LNG look equivalent to coal.
In re-reading Marc’s reply I can only say that it leaves him looking even worse than if he had not replied in the first place. Before his reply you could reasonably be left with the opinion he simply made a few mistakes….after the reply….