An open letter to solar companies: Beware alliance with the gas (and oil) industry

There is no room for anything except a managed retreat from gas.

Oil & gas companies are professing that the natural-gas and solar industries should be partners, working together supposedly to mutual benefit. It is a strategy that should be avoided by all solar companies able to do so – which is to say all those not owned by oil & gas companies – as long as the oil and gas industry pursues its current goal of growing gas use for decades to come.

There are two main reasons: emissions arithmetic and methane leakage.

The COP21 Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted by every independent nation last December, commits the international community to a global warming ceiling well below 2°C.

The world’s best climate scientists are clear on what this means in terms of emissions limitations: total decarbonisation as soon as possible, and certainly within a few decades.

There is no room for anything except a managed retreat from gas; yet oil & gas companies claim that society will still be mostly dependent on growing supplies several decades from now. BP’s recent Global Energy Outlook foresees the probability of 80% fossil-fuel use in 2035, most of it oil and natural gas. Solar can grow, but will still have only a minor role.

Make no mistake, this is the future most oil & gas companies are lobbying for, as things stand.

Gas leakage: Growing body of evidence

The industry repeats a mantra at every opportunity: that gas is less bad than coal in fuelling global warming, focusing on the fact that burning a unit of natural gas releases less greenhouse gas than burning a unit of coal. This is true, but ignores gas leakage. Gas leaks add methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere. If as little as 2% leaks before it is burned, gas is as bad as coal in global warming terms.

Site of massive gas leakage in Aliso Canyon, California.
Site of massive gas leakage in Aliso Canyon, California, December 2015.

There is a growing body of evidence, across the entire global gas supply chain, of more than 2% leakage. Individual companies may be good at controlling their emissions, but their industry as a whole clearly fails the test.

As long ago as 2011, scientists from Cornell University estimated that gas leakage from a US shale well could be 7.9% over its lifetime.

Gas industry lobbying has ensured that there has been astonishingly little systematic monitoring, but since 2013, a steady stream of measurements and observations of high leakage has emerged, as summarised in my book The Winning of the Carbon War. Worrying evidence has continued to clock up since its publication in January.

In March this year, researchers from Harvard University used satellite observations to show a “startling” increase in US methane concentrations, and suggested that shale fracking is the most likely explanation. As Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy puts it, “methane emissions from existing sources in the oil & gas sector are [much] higher than we previously understood”.

About the article
First published in Recharge magazine. This longer version of the text was first posted on Jeremy Leggett’s website.

Most US gas, fracked from shale or otherwise, is stored underground in abandoned oil and gas fields. In October 2015, one such field near Los Angeles started to leak so profusely that it became California’s biggest source of methane emissions. When it was finally plugged 112 days later, almost 100,000 tonnes of methane had escaped: the amount of gas consumed annually by a medium-sized European country.

During the public outcry, it has become clear that shoddy regulation means many more of America’s 400 storage fields are at risk of leaking. This is before we start on the rest of the supply chain.

In April, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published data from airborne monitoring about the US shale belt, suggesting leakage on a massive scale as a result of gas production.

Doomed business model

How, you may ask, can the gas industry stick to its “gas is good for the climate” mantra in the face of this kind of worrying evidence? The least uncharitable answer is enculturated wilful blindness.

Which introduces a third reason for solar to avoid this proposed partnership: the demonstrably malign nature of much oil & gas lobbying.

One recent case illustrates the point. The US and Canadian governments have decided to face up to gas leakage, as best they can, announcing a commitment to cut methane emissions from their oil & gas industries by 40-45%.

The reaction of the American Petroleum Institute has not been to welcome much-needed help in a crucial route to emissions limitation. It will instead take the Obama administration to court for loading “unnecessary” costs on the shale revolution.

The revolution they speak of is in fact a slow-motion bust as company after company goes bankrupt because they can no longer service the mountain of junk debt they have been permitted to build as they prosecute a doomed business model wherein drilling costs exceed revenues.

We don’t have that cost problem in solar. Which is another reason for steering clear of any industry-wide partnership with gas.