Activist Groups Attack Renewable Natural Gas Despite Environmental Benefits

Two “Keep It In The Ground” activist groups that work to stop the of use natural gas have become so opposed to anything involving “gas” that they have now resorted to attacking renewable natural gas (RNG), a non-fossil fuel alternative with tremendous environmental benefits.

The two groups, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, published a report attacking RNG as “myth” that won’t help decarbonize buildings and that houses should be all-electric with zero-emissions appliances that are powered by renewable energy sources like wind and solar. While the groups claim this is a “report,” their bias against natural gas is clear and they’ve made it their mission to undermine the fuel.

Earthjustice and the Sierra Club also assert that RNG isn’t a clean fuel despite evidence that shows otherwise and that its development should be halted because it hasn’t immediately achieved greater market share, which denies the fact that American innovation will make it more efficient moving forward.

What Is Renewable Natural Gas?

Increasing in use in recent years, renewable natural gas doesn’t come from the ground like traditional natural gas.  Instead it is derived from a variety of different sources that produce gas as a byproduct like landfills, livestock operations, wastewater treatment, industrial and commercial activities, supermarkets, and restaurants, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, which notes RNG is “pipeline-quality gas … that that has been processed to purity standards.”

The American Gas Association further notes that RNG must have a “high standard so it can be blended into existing gas pipelines … and it must have a lower carbon footprint than fossil natural gas.”

Clear Environmental Benefits

The report from Earthjustice and the Sierra Club claims that it is a “myth” that RNG can successfully reduce emissions to decarbonize buildings and claims several times that methane leakage negates the climate benefits of gas.

Yet, as Energy In Depth has previously noted, natural gas has helped the United States become the global leader in carbon emissions reductions and, as has been shown in multiple studies including from the journal Science, methane emission levels are well below the threshold to maintain climate benefits.

Because RNG must have a lower carbon footprint than typical natural gas, AGA says it has the potential to “reduce emissions from natural gas 95 percent in the residential sector.”

The Energy Information Administration reports that RNG has grown in popularity to help organizations meet their renewable fuel production targets.

Further underscoring the benefits of RNG – and natural gas in general – is an AGA report showing the great progress made by natural gas utilities to improve efficiency that saves money and reduces emissions:

“In 2018, natural gas utilities funded 132 natural gas efficiency programs, 125 in 42 states, and seven in Canada. The utility efficiency program investments remain consistent at $1.3-1.4 billion dollars per year. With these significant investments, natural gas utilities helped their customers save 259 trillion Btus of energy and offset over 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from 2012 to 2018, equivalent to removing 2.9 million cars off the road for a year.” (emphasis added)

Thanks to these efficiency improvements, natural gas has become exponentially cleaner over the past thirty years with the Environmental Protection Agency reporting emissions from the natural gas distribution system fell by 73 percent from 1990 to 2018 – even as 760,000 miles of pipeline were added.

Because natural gas is flexible, reliable, and versatile, it is helping lower emissions in other sectors of the economy like transportation, industrial operations, and residential and commercial buildings.

Potential For Greater Benefits

The Earthjustice and Sierra Club imply that because RNG hasn’t already been perfected, it will never be a viable fuel source, claiming it “could only replace 13 percent of the existing demand for fossil gas” and that it is “extremely costly.”

That mindset completely dismisses the power of American innovation. Just because RNG – a relatively new concept – isn’t already a dominant player in the energy mix doesn’t mean our country’s best and brightest can’t make it better. In fact, they already are. The American Gas Foundation (AGF) estimates RNG will quickly become cost competitive with other emissions reductions pathways:

“Today, RNG costs more than fossil gas, but as the market matures, production volumes increase, and long-term contracts develop, the opportunities for cost declines are significant. By 2040, ICF expects the majority of RNG to cost between $7-$20mmBtu.”

The potential is there for greater future production of RNG, possibly as high as 4,510, tBtu per year by 2040 an AGF report estimated, while noting that average yearly national consumption of all natural gas from the past decade is 4,846, tBtu. This shows that the wide variety of RNG sources including landfills, livestock operations, wastewater treatment facilities, and other feedstocks could play a major role, alongside traditional natural gas, in meeting future energy demand.

Furthermore, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club are trying to have it both ways. They want to block RNG development because it can’t meet energy demands today and don’t think innovation is possible. But at the same time they want wind and solar to power all-electric buildings, yet those two sources only make up 4 percent of American energy consumption.

Earthjustice and Sierra Club are clearly arguing for patience and entrepreneurship for the energy sources they like and arguing against it for the energy sources they don’t like, despite the many environmental and economic benefits of natural gas.

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