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Hiltzik: The ‘renewable natural gas’ dodge


Followers of Chevron’s management without doubt have discovered that they’ve recently been boasting about their management in the the combat versus worldwide warming.

They’ve been speaking about investing in hydrogen, “carbon capture” and “renewable fuels,” most notably at a Sept. 14 investor presentation and a series of appearances by CEO Mike Wirth on CNBC.

Wirth place in a powerful plug for renewable normal gasoline, which he named as a section of the “primary focus” of the company’s small-carbon approach in coming years.

Parts of the gasoline marketplace are working with wildly exaggerated claims about the feasibility, price and impacts of these fossil gas choices.

Mark Kresowik, Rocky Mountain Institute

This pitch is critically essential for Chevron, due to the fact shareholders have set management less than the gun. At its once-a-year meeting in May possibly, a amazing 60.7% of shareholders voted for the company to “substantially” lessen its greenhouse fuel emissions.

So here’s a thing you have to have to know about “renewable pure gas.” It is a sham. Not only is it not really “renewable” in the exact feeling as wind, solar or hydroelectric electricity, which produce vitality devoid of consuming their sources, but it will have at ideal a minuscule effect on world warming.

That’s the summary of environmental researchers, who are inclined to consider of “renewable organic gas” as PR branding by fossil gas corporations anxious to give their small business styles a environmentally friendly veneer while staving off rules that would drastically reduce again on fuel consumption.

To advertise the thought, these businesses gloss above the actuality that renewable natural fuel, or RNG, is as a great deal as five instances as high priced as regular fossil-developed gas, that its availability is minimal in contrast to total gasoline need, and that its part in addressing international warming will be negligible at ideal.

“Parts of the gasoline business are utilizing wildly exaggerated promises about the feasibility, price tag and impacts of these fossil gas alternatives,” says Mark Kresowik of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an ecological consider tank. Their target, he claims, is to “delay and undermine the effective investments that towns and states want and need to have to make to stay clear of the worst impacts of local climate improve.”

In fact, one of the leaders in selling “renewable normal gas” is Southern California Gasoline, the nation’s major normal gas utility. As my colleague Sammy Roth has claimed, for SoCal Gas, the state’s plan of weaning properties and offices from fuel for heating and cooking by encouraging the conversion of structures to all-electric powered resources poses an “existential danger.” (While several electric powered crops operate on normal gas, that’s cleaner than residential and professional use in part mainly because the plants are a lot more successful and have scrubbing technologies to take greenhouse gases out of their emissions.)

SoCal Gas informed me by e mail that it “continues to make fantastic progress” towards its designs to offer 20% of its customers’ fuel usage from renewable sources by 2030. That’s a goal that quite a few vitality gurus imagine is unattainable, especially at an inexpensive value. The gasoline firm also claims it has “made terrific strides” in lessening methane leaks from pipelines — a troublesome route by which methane reaches the ambiance. The firm suggests that recapturing methane, the critical element of fuel, from the emissions of decomposing squander “helps solve a greenhouse gasoline emissions trouble.”

However numerous environmental gurus argue that changing regular normal gas with RNG would do somewhat minimal to handle global warming, because fuel from any resource is a impressive contributor to the issue.

A Chevron spokesman told me by e mail that renewable all-natural fuel is “part of Chevron’s portfolio of technologies and solutions” aimed at that goal, the spokesman stated, and quoted a Chevron executive’s remarks at the Sept. 14 occasion that the corporation expects “double-digit returns” from RNG. The business stated that its investment in methane seize could “potentially mitigate emissions of 258 million tons for every year of animal manure and has the opportunity to decrease manure runoff into rivers and h2o supplies.”

As Emily Grubert of Georgia Tech observed past 12 months, RNG almost certainly would add to world warming, not fight it. An situation transient from the All-natural Sources Protection Council observed very last calendar year that RNG is “often not as local weather-helpful as claimed,” that burning it “still makes dangerous air pollutants,” and that “the minimal offer and significant charge of these fuels … inherently restrict what they can contribute” to the fight against world wide warming.

To dig further into what the Sierra Club has termed the fossil gas industry’s greenwashing marketing campaign, let us analyze what they imply by renewable natural fuel.

It’s methane gasoline that is not acquired by underground extraction, the classic means of manufacturing oil and gasoline. Relatively, it is captured from ground-amount methane-manufacturing sources these as organic substance in landfills, wastewater and manure from dairy cattle.

Products costing thousands and thousands of pounds for each installation collects this methane and ailments it to a place where it’s chemically indistinguishable from conventional purely natural fuel. Then it is injected into fuel pipelines for distribution to buyers.

Oil and fuel corporations love to explain this solution, which strength specialists far more precisely label biomethane or biogas, as “clean.” That is the theme of a cheery animated video clip with an up-tempo musical soundtrack on the SoCal Gas site.

But it’s not as clean as its promoters contend. On the plus aspect of the ledger, when it’s burned — say on a stovetop — it makes fewer carbon dioxide than classic normal gas. That is somewhat of a achieve, because carbon dioxide is a main greenhouse fuel. But it’s even now methane, which has much more than 80 periods the warming electricity of carbon dioxide when it first reaches the ambiance.

The threat is that gains to be made from renewable normal gasoline could persuade additional methane production from resources that really don’t already exist, say from crops developed for the purpose. If entrepreneurs of present sources these kinds of as landfills chose to direct their emissions to the gasoline process somewhat than burning it off in flares, that usually means additional methane, a detrimental for global warming, according to studies by the Environmental Protection Fund and Earth Methods Institute, among other folks.

Moreover, these sources are by themselves unclean. Effluent and emissions from dairy farming and landfills pollute the air and drinking water in the nearby communities. Cutting down that pollution necessitates minimizing all those sources’ footprints through scaled-down-scale farming and conservation and recycling to minimize squander. The prospect of revenue from methane capture, nonetheless, encourages larger manufacturing unit farms, which are greatest positioned to advantage from the pricey gear.

“The process is propping up these substantial manufacturing facility daily farms,” suggests Rebecca Spector, West Coastline director for the Middle for Food Safety. “It’s a false resolution to combating local climate modify and just one that perpetuates harm to the environment.”

There is a purpose for biogas, professionals concur — as a niche products with constrained programs. That is for the reason that its sources are confined even under the most optimistic sensible eventualities.

A 2016 review by UC Davis estimated that California alone had the professional functionality to develop only about 33 billion cubic toes of biogas for every 12 months. But California consumes 2.1 trillion cubic ft of gas per yr, which means that California-sourced biogas could account for at most 4.3% and as very little as 1.6% of annual intake.

“There is not more than enough high-high-quality RNG nationally out there to fulfill even Southern California’s desire,” Michael Colvin of the Environmental Defense Fund told me. That indicates that the proper function for biogas is for use in sectors that simply cannot effortlessly be electrified, principally significant industries this kind of as steel generation, maritime shipping and as aviation fuel. Chevron acknowledged that standard real truth in its Sept. 14 presentation. SoCal Gas states it is assured that there is “sufficient RNG feedstock” to satisfy its 2030 goal.

Southern California Gas remains centered on the residential and commercial marketplaces, which collectively account for about 1-3rd of California gas consumption. These people, on the other hand, are least difficult to change to all-electrical use the changeover largely calls for swapping out gasoline appliances and heaters for electric.

Those people buyers are also the targets of point out insurance policies. Past yr, the California Community Utilities Commission authorized $200 million in incentives to lessen demand for all kinds of fuel from the state’s energy current market, which includes $80 million for the building of all-electric housing and $120 million to stimulate reduced-emission place and water heaters in the dwelling.

What is genuinely driving the campaign to make natural gasoline glance inexperienced is the desperation of corporations these types of as Chevron and SoCal Fuel to turn a blind eye to repercussions of world warming for their individual destinies. The pressures on those providers to chart a new program are equivalent, while their resources differ.

Despite the fact that Chevron acquired a wake-up call from its investors at the past annual meeting, its administration would seem intent on snoozing by the alarm.

Wirth informed CNBC’s Jim Cramer that Chevron won’t be investing in wind and photo voltaic electricity, because the monetary rewards from those people investments are way too tiny. He reported shareholders have been free of charge to shell out their Chevron dividends on eco-friendly electrical power if they wished, although the enterprise aimed at lowering the carbon ingredient of its extra regular businesses — that is, oil and gas.

“That’s very well shorter of what a majority of shareholders mentioned they are looking for” in this year’s vote, states Andrew Logan, an oil and gasoline professional at Ceres, a Boston nonprofit that allows establish sustainability methods for industry. Management’s complacency could create “fireworks” at the up coming once-a-year meeting in the spring, he instructed me.

As for SoCal Gasoline, it is going through what could be a significant decline in gas desire from household and professional prospects, as condition procedures favoring electrification take hold. The business has cited the locating of a examine it commissioned that replacing 18% of the organic gasoline in its pipelines with RNG would have as beneficial an impression on world warming as changing almost all the households and offices it serves to electrical energy.

That analyze, however, has been roundly criticized by environmentalists, who say it overlooked the impact of methane leaks from the fuel company’s pipelines and overestimated the potential provide of RNG. The latter point was backed up by a 2019 review commissioned by the gas company’s guardian, Sempra, which concluded that RNG could substitute only about 9.4% of the organic gas in the state’s pipelines by 2030 — 50 % the SoCal Gas intention.

It is honest to presume that the gas enterprise is familiar with it’s blowing smoke by promising excellent gains from RNG. As Roth and I noted in 2019, the business was accused of environment up an astro-turf local community group in 2019 to encourage renewable and normal gasoline as a answer to international warming by framing the challenge as 1 of cost-free preference for consumers. If it had the courage of its convictions, it would rarely have needed to talk them by way of fakery.

“It’s vital that speaking about renewable purely natural gas doesn’t distract from the level that we require to lower the use of gas in all these purposes to the highest extent attainable,” suggests Jeremy Martin, an skilled on clear fuels at the Union of Worried Scientists. “The actuality that a tiny bit of it can be captured from squander shouldn’t cloud that overriding precedence.”


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