A new report insists that ‘renewable natural gas’ has too many problems for widespread use. And in Colorado, natural gas may be on the November ballot
by Allen Best
Several years ago, a speaker at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association annual conference became exuberant. At the time, natural gas was hailed as a bridge fuel, one that burned cleaner than coal. That simple fact had produced a tenuous alliance between environmental groups and drillers, who both saw advantages in dismantling coal, with Democratic governors Bill Ritter and John Hickenlooper enjoying support in both camps.
Enough talk about natural gas as a bridge, the speaker at the Denver conference exclaimed. It was the future.
Now, that future is being challenged as renewables, not natural gas, fill the void created in the retreat of coal. And, with climate scientists issuing throat-clearing warnings about the grave risk if emission are not tamed rapidly, environmental advocates have turned their attention to gas. The bridge, they say, has been crossed.
This new tension has flared prominently in California, where scores of jurisdictions last year banned natural gas in new buildings. None have done so in Colorado—yet. But the Colorado oil and gas industry has taken preemptory action to ensure they don’t, hurrying to get a ballot measure that would preclude local bans of natural gas.
A new report from the Sierra Club and its legal arm, EarthJustice, warns against the dangers of what’s being called renewable natural gas. Better, says the report, “Rhetoric vs. Reality: The Myth of ‘Renewable Natural Gas’ for Building Decarbonization,” is to electrify new homes.
The fundamental problem is the tendency of methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, to leak. Methane is far more potent in the shorter term than carbon dioxide. The report cites research published in the journal Science in 2018 that found the leakage rate in the U.S. gas supply chain equaled 2.3% of U.S. gross gas production, 60% higher than the EPA’s official estimate.
The Sierra Club is particularly worried about the rise of what it calls fossil gas alternatives, including what some companies are calling RNG, or renewable natural gas. RNG can include biogas, such as comes from wastewater treatment plant, landfills and livestock operations, or—using thermal gasification – forest and agriculture residues. There’s also synthetic gas, in which electricity is turned into hydrogen and then synthetic methane.
Of these, the only one that meets the smell test, so to speak, is biogas, as it would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere. But the study estimates that only enough methane from landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and similar sources could be captured to meet less than 1% of current gas demand.
“The rest must be intentionally produced and will pose the risk of additional methane leakage that can offset any potential emission reductions.”
This is adapted from the July 23, 2020, issue of Big Pivots. Subscribe for free to the e-magazine by going to Big Pivots.
The Sierra Club report says these fossil gas alternatives have roles, but very limited ones, such as for delivering high industrial heat for steel production or powering air or marine transportation.
“Biogas and synthetic gas as well as other renewable liquid fuels, have several advantages over electricity. Though costly, limited and inefficient to produce, they are energy dense, can be stored and transported more readily than electricity, and work with existing infrastructure that must rely on combustion,” the report says.
“In optimizing their use, the advantages of renewable fuels (e.g. flexible, combustible, dispatchable) should be weighed against their disadvantages (cost, leakage, limited supply) and the availability of alternatives such as electrification and demand management. Because heat pumps and electric vehicles offer super efficiency and eliminate end-use air pollution, direct use of electricity should be used to the maximum extent feasible in buildings and transport.”
Building electrification is not the same as that which occurred in the 1970s. With the aid of efficient air-source heat pumps, which can extract heat from the outside air, and better understanding of circulation, natural gas is being eliminated from some buildings. Geos neighborhood in Arvada, Colo., is one such project, and Basalt Vista in Basalt, Colo., another. Boulder and Bouilder County are using a program called Comfort 365 to encourage fuel and technology switching.
Those are voluntary. Now come bans of new natural gas infrastructure. In July 2019, Berkeley, Calif., adopted the first ban in the country on natural gas in new buildings. By February, when the New York Times took note of the trend, 22 other California cities and counties had also adopted similar bans, as had several jurisdictions across the country.
None have in Colorado, although a climate change task force report to Denver’s elected officials issued last week calls for building electrification when natural gas infrastructure fails but also net-zero homes and buildings being part of all new buildings in the 2027 base building code.
In California, battle lines have been drawn. The Los Angeles Times in October 2019 reported that Southern California Gas Co., which has 22 million customers in California, had already started working to convince local officials that policies aimed at replacing gas with electricity would be wildly unpopular. Called SoCalGas, the company had already released a strategy paper that calls for the company to replace 20% of the fossil gas in the company’s pipelines with renewable gas by 2030 and later add large amounts of hydrogen and other non-fossil fuels. It makes its case on this web page.
Maximilian Auffhammer, an environmental economist at UC Berkeley, compared SoCalGas’ dilemma to that of a company selling hay to feed horses at a moment in time when horse-drawn carriages were being replaced by cars. Electrification, he said, posed a similarly existential threat to gas utilities.
Colorado looks to be hurrying toward a similar battle over public minds. In a July 6 posting, S&P Global Platts reported that a group backed by the Colorado oil and gas industry is pursuing a ballot initiative meant to prevent local governments from banning the use of natural gas in new residential and commercial developments. The ballot initiative must get signatures from 142,632 registered voters by Aug. 3 to qualify for Colorado’s election ballot in October.
Protect Colorado bundles the ballot initiative as a message for consumer choice.
“Initiative 284 prevents governments from removing your consumer choice when it comes to what energy is used in homes and businesses for cooking, heating homes and water, and generators,” it says on its website. “If passed, local and state governments could not enact any laws banning natural gas usage in new construction.”
The measure has already received support from the dominant newspaper in Colorado Springs, the Gazette: “Stop the fringe from prohibiting natural gas.”
But the majority of the Colorado Legislature in 2019 adopted laws calling for rapid decarbonization of Colorado’s economy. The first target of 26% by 2025 can be met by closing coal plants and some other measures. Much harder will be the 50% reduction by 2050. For that, decisive steps will be required in the built environment. This is even more true of the 2050 deadline of 90% reduction.
Even if no local jurisdictions have been reported to be considering natural gas bans, the issues will likely arise in the next legislative session. State Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, says he is considering legislation that would, if adopted, create a social cost of methane, similar to the social cost of carbon adopted by Colorado in 2019. That cost, $46 a ton, has legally become a consideration for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission when considering plans proposed by regulated electrical utilities.
Hansen also expects to reintroduce a bill, SB20-150, which got shelved in the covid-crimped 2020 session. The bill proposed to create a renewable natural gas standard, to spur the use of existing methane emissions from landfills, dairies and other such sources.
See this and other stories in a free e-mail newsletter/magazine called Big Pivots. Subscribe for free by going to Big Pivots.