Guess Who’s Back (Back Again): Researcher Once Again Relies on Debunked Research to Make Same Incorrect Lifecycle Emissions Claims
Democratic lawmakers are citing a not yet peer-reviewed or published study from a biased researcher with a history of flawed work to justify their calls to stop permitting new LNG export facilities in the United States.
The research from Cornell University Professor Bob Howarth claims that when considering the lifecycle emissions of LNG, natural gas has worse emissions than coal. As E&E News reports, this prompted Sen. Ed Markey (D-Ore.) to tell reporters:
“As we’ve come to understand the leakage in the fossil gas system, we really have to embrace what science tells us, and that is our desire or hope that possibly fossil gas is a bridge to a better future is simply a myth — a myth that needs to be abandoned.” (emphasis added)
Except Howarth’s research is an outlier: the science has repeatedly demonstrated the climate benefits of natural gas and LNG. In fact, the Department of Energy responded to the study explaining that two DOE studies (2014, 2019) dispute Howarth’s findings, telling E&E:
“Both the 2014 and 2019 analysis concluded that that the use of U.S. LNG exports for electricity generation in European and Asian markets will not increase GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions from a life cycle perspective, when compared to regional coal extraction and consumption for electricity generation.” (emphasis)
Furthermore, Howarth’s past work has been widely criticized by the scientific community for not using credible data, “distorting science in order to support a preconceived political agenda,” and making “unreasonable” and “biased” assumptions. This includes the Clean Air Task Force which said of his 2011 research – that is the foundation for Howarth’s claim that methane emissions from natural gas negate its climate benefits – used “some very questionable data and too readily ignores or dismisses available data that would change its conclusions.”
A closer look into Howarth’s latest study similarly shows a flawed methodology. Foremost, Howarth builds on his own flawed research by citing a whopping seven of his past debunked studies, giving the appearance of academic scrutiny when in reality, he’s promoting his own work. Howarth even told fellow activist and 350.org founder Bill McKibben:
“It is always possible I have made a mistake or two. Hopefully not large.”
Here are a few additional facts to keep in mind when reading the research and coverage on it:
Fact: Howarth’s research is biased and agenda-driven.
It’s worth noting that Howarth’s echo chamber is a “who’s who” of anti-fossil fuel activists with clear, demonstrated biases.
The study was funded by the Park Foundation, a group that a 2018 Northeastern University study found to be one of the largest funders of anti-fracking research and activism. The Park Foundation’s President Adelaide Park – a family heir – has said:
“In our work to oppose fracking, the Park Foundation has simply helped to fuel an army of courageous individuals and NGOs.” (emphasis added)
Similarly, despite Howarth claiming that he has “no conflicts of interest that would adversely influence this research,” the opposite is true. Most notably that he sits on Food and Water Watch’s (F&WW) board of directors.
F&WW explains that its board consists of “leaders in activism” and prides itself on being “the first U.S. national organization to call for a ban on fracking.” Opposition to fracking clearly extends to opposition to U.S. LNG.
And, if this isn’t enough, look no further than the climate activists that joined Howarth and Democratic lawmakers in a press call, as reported by E&E News:
“Merkley was joined on the call by Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) and Jennifer McClellan (D-Va.). Howarth, climate activist Bill McKibben and Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s energy program, also participated.” (emphasis added)
Bill McKibben has previously stated he’s on a mission to “kill” the oil and natural gas industry which he’s compared to “the crimes of slavery, totalitarianism, colonialism [and] apartheid” and has vocally opposed LNG exports. For its part, Public Citizen has long been anti-American energy and supports fringe theories like “climate homicide.” These are hardly academic, non-biased presenters.
Beyond the clear biases that should immediately raise red flags, the study blatantly misrepresents the facts about U.S. LNG.
Fact: Science continues to show the climate benefits of LNG and natural gas.
In addition to the DOE, there has been a multitude of research analyzing the lifecycle emissions of LNG. For instance, the American Petroleum Institute and ICF International found that U.S. LNG produces 50.5 percent fewer emissions on average when used for electricity generation in China, Germany and India.
Cheniere – one of the largest exporters of U.S. LNG – has also carefully studied the emissions footprint of its operations. In a 2021 peer-reviewed study on Sabine Pass, researchers found:
“GHG emission intensities are estimated to be 30–43 percent lower than other analyses employing national or regional average emission profiles. The segments driving these differences are gas production and gathering, transmission, and ocean transport. Extending the boundaries of this analysis to the power plant illustrates the effect of fuel switching from coal to natural gas; the effect of fuel switching in China is a 47–57 percent reduction in GHG emission intensity, cradle through power generation.” (emphasis added)
Whereas most research in this space relies on national averages, often including every proposed facility regardless of operational status and these facilities’ maximum permitted emissions, the Sabine Pass study was able to provide a facility level analysis of the entire supply chain.
Additionally, Cheniere provides a carbon emissions tag with every shipment of its LNG, allowing end recipients to have a clear and transparent understanding of the emissions generated with each shipment:
“In 2022, Cheniere began providing our long-term customers with Cargo Emissions Tags (CE Tags) showing the estimated GHG emissions associated with each cargo produced at our facilities. The CE Tags are calculated from our supplier-specific life cycle assessment (LCA) model and provide a value chain emissions estimate from wellhead to point of delivery, supplying our customers with actionable information about life cycle emissions and an input to better understand their own Scope 3 emissions profile. CE Tags are calculated utilizing Cheniere’s LCA model.”
Fact: U.S. natural gas is helping to reduce domestic and global emissions.
The data continues to stack up showing how natural gas and U.S. LNG exports are helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the world.
Charlie Riedl, executive director of the Center for LNG, said that “LNG had less life-cycle emissions than coal.” He continued:
“[Natural] gas produces less traditional pollutants like SOx and NOx and can play a key role as partner to renewables, providing responsive power needs to complement growing renewable usage.”
Rystad Energy recently touted natural gas as a “crucial stepping stone to a sustainable future” with its ability to provide affordable, reliable and responsible energy, even in aggressive emissions reduction scenarios:
“Gas is increasingly considered a crucial stepping stone to a sustainable future. With reduced emissions and regional energy security goals aligned, gas is poised to play a pivotal role in the global energy transition.” (emphasis added)
In the United States, the transition to more natural gas in the power sector has drastically reduced emissions.
As U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data show:
“From 2016 to 2020, the carbon intensity of U.S. power generation fell 18 percent, driven by a shift in the U.S. electricity generation mix away from coal and toward natural gas and renewables.” (emphasis added)
Japanese industry minister Yasutoshi Nishimura recently told the LNG Producer-Consumer Conference in Tokyo:
“We must accelerate energy transition and within that transition, LNG plays an extremely important role.”
In addition, while the United States leads the world in oil and natural gas production, it’s not the largest emitter of methane – not by a long shot. North American methane emissions are a fraction of those coming from Asia, according to GHGSat’s 2021 methane emissions report that showed a whopping 69 percent of total methane emissions in 2021 came from Asia.
Natural gas produced in the United States and exported from the United States means less reliance on resources from countries that have looser environmental standards, like China.
Fact: The U.S. oil and gas industry takes great measurers to prevent leaks and operate responsibly.
The U.S. energy industry takes great care to produce the cleanest gas anywhere in the world and operate responsibly, including by finding and eliminating leaks.
The recently released 2023 Environmental Partnership showcases some of these efforts, with 70 percent of U.S. onshore oil and gas operators participating. Combined, these participating companies were able to reduce leak occurrence to 0.07 percent. Producers have also been able to reduce flaring by over half in the last two years, thanks to industry innovation.
Similarly, the Natural Gas STAR program, a partnership with U.S. oil and gas operations to implement methane reducing technologies, shows that as of November 2021, program participants have reduced 72 trillion cubic feet of methane emissions.
These national efforts and others are enhanced by companies along the natural gas and LNG supply chain who are making individual efforts in their areas to reduce emissions and impacts of their facility.
For example, as EID has previously discussed, to meet the demand for low carbon intensive LNG, NextDecade is targeting production of low carbon intensive LNG with the use of carbon capture, and working with leading producers to supply responsibly sourced gas. In addition to designing their Rio Grande LNG project to meet or exceed all the strict environmental and regulatory requirements, NextDecade is working closely with city partners and the local community, as well as establishing an expansive conservation effort five times the size of their Rio Grande LNG export facility.
Fact: U.S. LNG is providing energy security across the world and natural gas will be needed for the long haul.
U.S. LNG continues to set records. In 2022, the United States solidified its place as the top exporter of LNG, exporting an average of 11.2 billion cubic feet per day. This year, the country is on track to break those numbers with new data showing that the United States exported an average of 20.4 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) of natural gas in the first six months of 2023. The bulk of that growth can be attributed to LNG exports.
EID has discussed at length the role that U.S. LNG exports have played in providing energy security to the world, especially to global allies filling the gap left behind by Russian exports. And the consensus for continued natural gas and LNG exports is also clear.
According to Rystad Energy, increased natural gas production is needed to both satisfy global demand and meet decarbonization goals while a recent IEA report underscores the need for continued LNG investment to maintain global energy security.
Bottom Line: U.S. LNG is providing needed, reliable energy security across the globe, and is doing so cleaner and more responsibly than anywhere in the world.