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Do fossil fuels have a place in the net zero transition?
In our first edition of Wormhole, Arielle dives into a question that kept coming up in our previous story.
Welcome to the first edition of Wormhole, a new subscribers-only series where I tell you about the wormholes I fell into while reporting previous stories.
Today, we’ll be looking at the wormhole of conflicting research I reported on for last week’s story on the natural gas industry’s climate ads, as I tried to figure out the real role of fossil fuels in the transition to a net zero future.
Going into the story, I assumed scientific research would uniformly show that there couldn’t be any role for them at all. After all, it’s right there in the name: net zero emissions.
Some research did support my assumptions. But the deeper I dug, the more I found research that seemed to argue there could be room for fossil fuels in a net zero transition, if and only if they’re partnered with emissions-capturing technology like carbon capture and storage.
Our story didn’t have room to include all the nuances of that debate. In the end, Emily ended up cutting out over 1,000 words from the final version. (Editors, please send Emily your thoughts, prayers, and supportive emails.)
But we decided that readers—especially those who are new to climate change—may be interested in learning how I grappled with this scientific research as a fairly new climate reporter.
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The scientific arguments for natural gas
In last week’s story, I wrote that there’s “an honest debate over how to effectively transition global energy usage to renewables, including the use of natural gas in combination with carbon capture and storage.” After we published, in the comments, one reader expressed surprise and disappointment that I had written that sentence.
I was surprised myself. My first draft, sans deep research dive, laid out my assumptions that gas had no place in the transition to net zero, and that the world needed to run on 100 percent renewable energy.
But several scientists, the IPCC’s latest report, researchers, and papers in peer-reviewed journals like Nature say that’s not necessarily the case. Since I try to be fair and balanced when reporting on scientific research, I really tried to understand those arguments.
They seem to fall into a few categories:
Intermittency. Renewable energy sources like solar and wind power are intermittent and need to be backed by another fuel that will kick in once the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. (Energy Policy)
Emissions. Natural gas releases roughly half the carbon dioxide emissions as coal, which means transitioning from coal to natural gas cuts down on CO2 emissions. (Nature Climate Change)
Carbon capture. Pairing natural gas and other fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage and elimination of methane leaks could make them low-to-zero emissions. Because the world will end up with a huge reservoir of unused fossil fuels, those could be paired with carbon capture and storage. (IPCC)
To reach net zero, the IPCC allows for a scenario where fossil fuels, paired with carbon capture and storage (CCS), make up a significant portion of our clean energy future. “Fossil energy combined with CCS provides a means of producing low-carbon energy while still utilizing the available base of fossil energy worldwide and limiting stranded assets,” it says in its sixth assessment report.
So does that mean that the gas companies are right?
The scientific argument against natural gas
In short: not really. Because for every scientific argument for fossil fuels in a net zero future, there are several scientific arguments against them. Let’s take them one by one.
Intermittency. More than one scientific study shows that the world can run on 100 percent renewable energy. (Energy) Other research shows that intermittency issues can be solved by advancements in storage technology, incorporating a mix of renewable energy sources, and adding more renewable generators and expanding geographic distribution to make renewable energy more predictable. These advancements are already in the works. (Applied Energy, IEEE)
Emissions. The emissions from natural gas are wildly underestimated; it’s not as “clean” compared to coal as the industry makes it out to be. (Energy Science & Engineering, Energy & Environmental Science) Using natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to transition away from coal is unnecessary and risks slowing the transition to renewables even further. (Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews).
Carbon capture. Every scientific scenario for the use of fossil fuels in a net zero future depends on carbon capture. But the IPCC says it clearly: “[Carbon dioxide removal] deployed at scale is unproven, and reliance on such technology is a major risk in the ability to limit warming to 1.5°C.” (IPCC) If every capture facility currently planned by developers is built by 2030, they would capture over 220 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. The world released more than 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels last year. (IEA, Earth System Science Data)
The argument for fossil fuels and the argument against fossil fuels in the net zero transition each assume we will have major advancements in technology. But only one argument has realistic assumptions. According to the IPCC: “The political, economic, social and technical feasibility of solar energy, wind energy and electricity storage technologies has improved dramatically over the past few years, while that of nuclear energy and carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) in the electricity sector have not shown similar improvements.”
Finally, according to the IPCC, “Limiting warming to 1.5°C implies reaching net zero CO2 emissions globally around 2050 and concurrent deep reductions in emissions of non-CO2 forcers, particularly methane.” Natural gas is predominantly made up of—you guessed it—methane.
How fossil fuel companies twist the debate
The fact is, in every single pathway to 1.5°C laid out by the IPCC, the use of natural gas is significantly reduced. And that’s simply not what that natural gas industry is trying to do with their advertising.
Corporations that profit from natural gas are not actually engaging in the scientific debate we just explored. They are taking a kernel of truth from one side of that debate, and blowing it massively out of proportion to rebrand as clean energy and expand the use of natural gas. These two things are fundamentally out of line with a net zero future.
The ads we covered in our story last week, run by Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future, claim “natural gas is accelerating our clean energy future.” This claim is flat-out false. Just this week, the International Energy Agency published a report showing that methane emissions are nearing record highs because of the oil and gas industry. Fossil fuel companies have the technology and the means to fix their methane leaks and reduce their emissions by 75 percent. But they’re not doing it.
Natural Allies’s ads are part of targeted effort across the gas industry to pretend gas companies are part of the solution. Pro-gas groups have successfully lobbied to redefine natural gas as green energy, paid social media influencers to promote gas stoves, and recruited former (and current) Congressmembers like Tim Ryan to persuade the public that natural gas is clean.
This is a disinformation tactic the gas industry borrowed from none other than the coal industry. Before natural gas, “clean coal” was the bridge fuel that was going to help the world cross from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy. The campaign started in the 1970s. That’s 40 years of bridge fuels, with no end in sight.
According to its own internal documents, obtained by the Guardian and the Energy and Policy Institute, the entities behind Natural Allies are only trying to survive in a world that’s increasingly hostile to their product. They are twisting a legitimate scientific debate to promote a fundamentally anti-science agenda.
For the record, these are the entities behind Natural Allies’s board of directors:
Susan Waller: Formerly at Enbridge
Amanda Mertens Campbell: Williams
Alex Oehler: TC Energy
Karen Merkel: National Fuel Gas Company
Casey Joyce: Otis Minnesota Services, a pipeline construction company
Kim Watson:, Kinder Morgan, a gas pipeline company, and Interstate Natural Gas Association of America
The proof is in the profits. Oil and gas companies like Exxon Mobil, Shell, TotalEnergies, BP, and Chevron had their most lucrative year ever in 2022, a consequence of the war in Ukraine and Russian sanctions jacking up oil and gas prices. The U.S. is now the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world.
If we continue to expand our natural gas infrastructure, at what point do these companies make good on their promises to switch from fossil fuels to zero-carbon fuels?
The answer is never. No company gives up its profits easily, especially if those profits amount to nearly $200 billion. It’s like the toll road that the state promises they’ll stop charging you for once the road pays for itself. The tolls only go up. You pay forever.
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Other fun facts left out last week
Last year, global fossil carbon dioxide emissions rose to 36.6 gigatons—the equivalent of 366,000 fully-loaded U.S. aircraft carriers. Fossil carbon emissions in the U.S. also rose in 2022, by 1.5 percent.
The good news is that the rate of fossil carbon emissions growth has slowed, from 3 percent per year during the 2000s to about 0.5 percent per year in the past decade, according to the Global Carbon Budget 2022.
The bad news is that, at this rate, reaching net zero by 2050 would require emissions to drop annually the same amount as they did during COVID-19 lockdowns. That would be the equivalent of global lockdowns every year, for the next 27 years.
But look on the bright side: A poll of people who live in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming found that “Two-thirds of voters want to see 100 percent of their energy come from ‘clean, renewable sources like solar and wind, within 10 to 15 years.’” That’s from the excellent Sammy Roth at the Los Angeles Times.
Quotes that got cut from last week’s story
So many people informed our reporting for last week’s story, but their quotes didn’t make it into the final draft. Here are three of my favorites:
Lesley Ott, climate scientist at NASA, on the disproportionate impact of industrialized countries: “We also know that in the U.S. and other industrialized countries, we're going to have to make way more reductions in our emissions and increase our savings rate…It's pretty clear that the emissions decreases we've seen are not dramatic enough to get us to where we need to be to really counteract or reduce warming.”
Faye Holder, climate researcher at U.K. think tank InfluenceMap, on how Natural Allies’s misinformation relies on a kernel of truth “Similar to the argument around coal, there is a nugget of truth in these claims. But what the oil and gas industry is doing is taking that and running with it in a direction that best serves them and that is wholly misaligned from the Paris Agreement and limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.”
Brad Dayspring, vice president of marketing and communications at Politico, arguing that banning fossil fuel ads endangers democracy: “It's essential to understand that for independent journalism to exist, there has to be a firewall that goes in both directions. And once that firewall starts to show a crack—whether it's the newsroom coming to the business team saying what advertisements should and shouldn't look like, or the business teams going to editorial saying, don't cover this, you should cover that, or stay away from this—that independent journalism erodes. And that's a dangerous place for a democratic institution to be.”
XO, Planet 💕
Usually we end with Catch of the Day, a pet-sharing palate cleanser. But for Wormhole, we’ll be ending with exoplanets—planets outside our solar system—to remind us of how good we’ve got it here. Consider it a love letter to Earth.
Our first destination is HD 189733b, a hazy blue planet that rains glass sideways.
While it may look invitingly like Earth from 64 light-years away, up close this planet has ferocious winds that blow up to seven times the speed of sound.
The blue color comes from clouds of silicate particles, which could possibly rain glass sideways in the 5,400 mph (2 km/s) winds.
Win a killer vacation! Get 64 light-years away from it all and brave the elements of a totally unsuitable planet. All you have to do is subscribe. 😉