Sierra Club: We Need and Oppose Natgas
Last year at the Wall Street Journal ECO:nomics conference, Paul Gallay of Riverkeeper stood up and proclaimed a litany of falsehoods about shale development, ranging from claims about smog to benzene concentrations – all of which he said were “facts,” even though they were not. Perhaps in keeping with that tradition, another prominent anti-shale voice – Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club – appeared at the conference this year, choosing to make his own series of incorrect (albeit less inflammatory) claims about natural gas.
Before we look at Mr. Brune’s claims, however, it’s worth reminding everyone: The Sierra Club’s position on natural gas is based on ad hoc expediency, not environmental principle. What the national chapter says about natural gas or hydraulic fracturing could be (and often is) the exact opposite of what a state affiliate says to the local news media. In that sense, we all should take Mr. Brune’s latest pronouncements with a grain of salt, lest the Sierra Club’s position tomorrow contradict its Executive Director’s statements today (or yesterday, as is the case here — you get the picture).
BRUNE: “We acknowledge that gas is playing — or will play a role in the future as we begin to de-carbonize the power sector…If you had had, and you probably did have folks up on stage five, six, seven years ago you would have had most environmentalists arguing that gas is an important transition fuel, a bridge fuel. And that was based on the assessment that gas, when it’s burned, burns with about half the greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal. And that is still true when gas is burned.” (1:10)
FACT: As odd as it may sound, we’ll admit it: Michael Brune of the Sierra Club is correct. That he’s so forthright about the fact that, just a few years ago, environmentalists were pro-gas is laudable – though it also underscores the problem that today’s opponents of natural gas face. We know credible science still maintains that life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas are about half those of coal, so what gives? We’ll get to that in a minute.
BRUNE: “But what we’ve learned over the past five, six, seven years is that the process of extracting natural gas through fracking is much more carbon intensive than previously thought.” (1:30)
FACT: Interestingly, in the course of his remarks, Brune said the most comprehensive study to date on the greenhouse gas impact of natural gas is from the EPA, which estimates that methane leakage is 2.4 percent (in the public discussion about the relative GHG impact of natural gas systems, the topic has primarily been about methane, not carbon).
However, Brune did acknowledge – and rightfully so – that EPA’s data is old and unreliable. What he did not acknowledge is that, based on EPA’s latest GHG inventory, the leakage rate is only about 1.2 percent, or 50 percent less than the EPA estimated. That matches the findings of a study done last summer by URS Corporation, which had a sample size ten times larger than EPA’s and found that emissions were “at least 53 percent lower” than what EPA said they were. Other studies from the U.S. Department of Energy and MIT (and even a study funded by the Sierra Club) have observed that the life-cycle GHG profile of natural gas is roughly half that of coal, which means it’s still in line with what we knew about the relative benefits of natural gas back when environmental groups were singing its praises.
So what has changed? Well, for one, the price of natural gas is a fraction of what it was a half-decade ago, and folks at the Sierra Club want us all to think that’s a threat to the growth of renewables. But since it clearly is not, they have to inflate fears and manufacture storylines about “new science” on environmental impacts. Although, in the case of the Sierra Club, even they have funded studies that contradict their own (new) position. But we repeat ourselves.
BRUNE: “So the fact that we are developing an energy transition that is relying on a fuel – natural gas – about which we have incomplete information about the climate impacts should scare everybody.” (2:50)
FACT: We don’t have incomplete information. The EPA, the Department of Energy (on multiple occasions, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory), the IPCC, MIT, Carnegie Mellon (paid for by Sierra Club), the University of Maryland, and countless other experts have all observed the life-cycle GHG impact of natural gas is 50 percent less than coal. The only thing “incomplete” is the justification that folks at the Sierra Club are using to suggest the science isn’t settled.
In addition, it’s fitting that Brune chose to say his claim should “scare everybody,” because that’s the essence of the anti-shale playbook. If the public isn’t scared, then they won’t handcuff themselves to the White House gates, and they certainly won’t listen to the Sierra Club when it invents terms like “LNG Fracking.”
BRUNE: “There are some technologies – green completions at the wellhead can do a great to minimize the amount of methane leakage. We can repair and replace natural gas pipelines all across the country and significantly reduce the amount of leakage coming from the transmission system.” (3:22)
FACT: Once again, we have to admit that we agree with Michael Brune here. Problems can and indeed should be fixed. The good news is that the technologies Brune outlined are already being adopted at a much faster rate than what most folks previously thought, according to researchers at MIT.
It’s also good to hear that the Sierra Club recognizes the ability to fix problems instead of merely declaring their existence as a justification to do something else, such as a radical and taxpayer-funded shift away from base load power sources.
BRUNE: “Every billion dollars that’s invested in new gas, fracking, oil pipelines, coal plants is a billion dollars better invested in solar and wind and energy efficiency.” (3:59)
FACT: First of all, the companies investing in natural gas and hydraulic fracturing are unlikely to surrender that capital to another entity to invest in technologies in which they have little or no expertise. Telling a company that it cannot proceed with development doesn’t mean the money that would have been invested goes into some public treasury fund to be dispersed by the bureaucrats – or even worse, the Sierra Club. It simply means the jobs and economic opportunity that development would have facilitated will instead be sacrificed for good.
Second, the premise of Brune’s statement – investing in natural gas means not investing in renewables – simply isn’t true. The reality is that renewables need available, base load power to grow, so investing in natural gas provides the conduit for technologies like wind and solar to flourish. Don’t believe us? Ask the solar and wind industries – which Brune ironically wants to promote at the expense of the industry they both need to grow!
BRUNE: “Our primary goal, from a climate perspective, should be to use as little gas as possible while we’re also phasing out of coal.” (5:35)
FACT: In a world where cause and effect do not exist, the “phasing out of coal” can be achieved without natural gas. In the real world – where most of us reside – the reason coal is losing market share is because of natural gas. Brune is pretending that the cause for the recent shift away from coal is unimportant, and that the effect – less coal use – is some sort of organic, random occurrence that creates a void to be filled.
In classic Sierra Club fashion, Brune’s statement also directly contradicts what happened in Wisconsin, where a switch from coal to natural gas was called “long overdue” by the Sierra Club, and something that would yield significant benefits in terms of public health and reduced emissions.
In conclusion, we’ll just caution our readers one more time: Everything Mr. Brune said at the ECO:nomics conference about natural gas should be viewed with skepticism — not just because it was so often at odds with the facts, but because the Sierra Club has an evolving — or perhaps devolving — position on natural gas.