Cornell Professor Robert Howarth returns to Radio Ecoshock reporting the whole Liquefied Natural Gas process leaks so much methane it may be worse than coal for the climate. Oxford Professor Raymond Pierrehumbert tells us methane worries are overblown. Carbon dioxide is the real threat driving Earth to a horrible Hothouse state.
I’m Alex Smith. Welcome to Radio Ecoshock.
ROBERT HOWARTH –
THE REAL CLIMATE COST OF LIQUIFIED NATURAL GAS
Facing growing calls for climate relief, President Biden just paused approval for construction of America’s largest Liquefied Natural Gas export terminal, called CP2 in Louisiana. The U.S. methane gas production has skyrocketed. Europe and Asia are hungry for more. There are already seven LNG ports and another five under construction. The government predicts LNG export capacity for North America will “more than double through 2027.”
That is great news for investors and the fracking industry, but terrible news for the environment. We did not know how bad until a new study emerged: “The Greenhouse Gas Footprint of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Exported from the United States”. There we find a catalog of methane leaking, venting, and burning all through the chain of super-cooling so-called “natural gas” into a liquid state, the massive gas tankers to deliver – all the way to electric generating plants in Europe. It is a trail of increasing emissions of the super-warming greenhouse gas methane. Is that the “green bridge to the future”?
The study’s author is Robert W. Howarth. He is the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology & Environmental Biology at Cornell University. For over a decade, Howarth has been tracking fracking and methane. But not all scientists agree with his findings, as we will hear in our next interview with Oxford climate physicist Raymond Pierrehumbert. Is the whole move to LNG a dangerous scam for the climate? Is it worse than coal, or a distraction from the real threat?
My notes and follow-up links for Robert Howarth are further down, after our second guest.
METHANE – THE WRONG FOCUS?
“...a lot of these methane emissions reductions that are being promised would happen automatically if they just stopped producing fossil fuels. The argument for a separate, targeted methane reduction program in the oil industry is just an end run, when what we need is accelerated reduction in fossil fuel production. And that would take care of it.” –
– Raymond Pierrehumbert, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Dec 2023 “Everything You Think You Know About Methane is Probably Wrong”
Well-known environmentalists like Bill McKibben are fighting a dramatic expansion in the natural gas industry. The American President pauses approval for a huge new Liquid Natural Gas terminal in Louisiana. Intergovernmental agencies say cutting methane emissions is the first, fast step to stop warming above 1.5 degrees C. But an Oxford Professor calls it all “a mass delusion and wishful thinking.” What is going on here?
We talk with Dr. Raymond Pierrehumbert. He is the Halley Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford, a lead author on the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC, and a specialist in Planetary Climate Dynamics. Pierrehumbert contributes to the RealClimate blog. He is a strong critic of solar geoengineering research. Raymond studies climate physics on Earth, but also climate on other planets.
Common wisdom in climate circles: over a twenty year time-span, methane is eighty times worse than carbon dioxide. In a presentation last July, Pierrehumbert listed that “80 times worse” as one of several “methane myths”. I ask him why.
His fundamental point is kind of a brain-cracker. At first I struggled with it. We should think of carbon dioxide as a stock, an amount accumulated – but methane as a flow. The more carbon dioxide we add to the atmosphere, the more Earth warms for thousands of years. But warming from methane only increases if and when the RATE of release into the atmosphere increases. Think of CO2 as the amount, and methane as the rate.
A HANDY NUMBER from Pierrehumbert’s slides: 1 W/m2 of RF (Radiative Frequency) corresponds roughly to .75C warming
MEASURING THE DAMAGE
The climate community, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports which Pierrehumbert co-authored, measure warming impacts by assigning various greenhouse gases with a number representing Global Warming Potential or GWP. Can we really find a common measurement for carbon dioxide and methane?
Global Warming Potential numbers for gases are often listed as GWP100 (Global Warming Potential over 100 years) or GWP20 (over 20 years). Pierrehumbert says using GWP20 to assess methane is a mistake. Robert Howarth says GPW20 is the way to go, and recognized by the U.S. and New York State governments. This is a fundamental difference between the way these two scientists assess the climate risks of methane.
In a 2020 paper Pierrehumbert co-authored a piece with John Lynch, Myles Allen and Michelle Cain about a possible fix called “GWP*”. Our guest explains that in our interview – or check out the paper.
The authors in this 2020 paper say:
“... the warming that results from the sustained CH4 emission: the bulk of the temperature change occurs rapidly, and is significant, but the rate of temperature increase declines after these initial decades. “
I think this is significant. Suggesting that the climate may revert to a previous state after a burst of rapid warming seems unlikely. Other feedback loops, not dependent on methane, may be stimulated, or tipping points crossed that are not reversible within tens of thousands of years. Once we kick-start a forest die/off/burn, or change an ocean current, it may not revert to its alternative state twenty years later when the methane has deteriorated into carbon dioxide and water vapor.
If we assume the natural gas industry and it’s rapid expansion developed quickly, and may fade out just as fast, it is possible human methane emissions could drop rapidly. What effect would that have on climate change?
DON’T FIXATE ON METHANE?
Raymond’s point in a recent article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is quite different. He says the whole methane fight is misplaced. Methane is just not the real problem threatening our climate. Carbon dioxide is.
American climate scientist Zeke Hausfather also disagrees with Robert Howarth’s assertion that the methane chain of production and delivery is worse than coal. Oxford scientist Myles Allen supports Pierrehumbert’s views.
Raymond Pierrehumbert also cites this study: “Unintentional unfairness when applying new greenhouse gas emissions metrics at country level” by Joeri Rogelj and Schleusssner published November 14, 2019 in Environmental Research Letters. And he says this group, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (which includes scientists) is pushing the methane-first narrative. Here is one of their posts.
And as reported by CBS News: “Ilissa Ocko, a senior climate scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund said reducing methane emissions is the ‘single fastest opportunity’ the world has to ‘slow down the rate of warming.’” Pierrehumbert and other scientists say this is a dangerously misleading myth! Check out why in our interview.
The Biden Administration has made reducing methane a cornerstone of their climate action policy. China has agreed to cut methane – everybody loves it! Meanwhile carbon dioxide pollution builds and builds to ever-higher levels pretty well unopposed. That is what will change the climate forever (in human terms).
I recall large amounts of time, energy and research dollars poured into an alleged 50 gigaton release of methane possible at any time from the Siberian Seabed. Two Russian scientists hosted foreign-funded research ships and released no raw data. Meanwhile, the rest of the world just kept on belching out carbon dioxide with little media attention.
In another wrinkle, Dr. Euan Nisbet, a repeat guest on Radio Ecoshock, reports measurements of air samples gathered across the world show the increase in methane over the last decade is clearly from organic sources, mostly tropical bogs heating up.
THE DOOMSDAY CLOCK
Speaking of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Pierrehumbert is part of the team that determined the Doomsday Clock should be set at 90 seconds to midnight. I ask him: What is “midnight” and is climate one of the reasons we hover in those last few seconds? (Spoiler alert: yes it is.)
The Bulletin’s release of this year’s dire clock setting is because:
“Ominous trends continue to point the world toward global catastrophe. …A variety of global threats cast menacing shadows over the 2024 Clock deliberations, including: the Russia-Ukraine war and deterioration of nuclear arms reduction agreements; the Climate Crisis and 2023’s official designation as the hottest year on record; the increased sophistication of genetic engineering technologies; and the dramatic advance of generative AI which could magnify disinformation and corrupt the global information environment making it harder to solve the larger existential challenges.”
Getting back to the “methane is the fast climate fix” myth, Raymond Pierrehumbert says:
“Part of it is people don’t realize how much warming we’re in for due to carbon dioxide if we continue emitting the way we’ve been doing. The amount of warming we can plausibly avoid, by even very aggressive action on methane, is a useful contribution, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to how much warming we’re going to be saddled with if we don’t get carbon dioxide emissions down to net zero.”
– Pierrehumbert Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Dec 2023
THE LNG PUSH AND CONTROVERSY
– Research by Alex Smith
A U.S. Government report predicts LNG export capacity for all North America, including Canada and Mexico “is likely to more than double through 2027”. But that was before Joe Biden heard the polls showing voters, especially his supporters, want climate action. Millions of Americans have been slammed with long-lasting heat waves, storm after storm, fires, smokes, and the weirdest out-of-control weather they have ever seen. This climate “issue” is getting personal.
As said, near the end of January President Biden announced a “pause” the application for the country’s largest LNG export terminal – in Louisiana. That may stall another seven new applications to build new LNG ports. But there are still five more already in construction. Surely the government did an in-depth study of the climate implications before permitting this dash for gas?
Not at all. The 2016 law pushed by the gas industry lobby lifting the ban did not include any climate requirements. The law simply required the President and the Department of Energy to certify the export of gas is in the national interest – as was the case in earlier energy permitting law passed in 1938. That is all. As far as I can tell, Robert Howarth’s new paper is the first full life-cycle analysis of methane from the ground through liquefaction, shipping, re-gassing and pipes to electric power plants.
In his new study, Howarth does not include emissions from the construction of all these new ports, tankers, and pipelines. You can find more on that in this 2022 paper by Kirsten Rosselot and colleagues: “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from LNG Infrastructure Construction: Implications for Short-Term Climate Impacts”.
The law approving massive expansion of American LNG exports does not count climate impacts at all! What an amazing blind spot. The law needs to be fixed. President Biden’s recent action at least acknowledges that a project that damages the climate and saddles Americans with climate-driven damages, could not be in the national interest. The Department of Energy is charged with looking into the climate impacts of this proposed Louisiana mega-port. That is why it is on “pause”. I think the DOE is legendary for being energy-friendly, and at times captured by the fossil fuel lobby. A long history of “revolving doors” between DOE and industry figures ensures great relations with the oil, gas, and coal producers.
A previous study published in July 2023 by Deborah Gordon, Drew Shindell et al investigates methane leakage. The title of this Open Access paper is: “Evaluating net life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions intensities from gas and coal at varying methane leakage rates”. Quoting from that paper’s Abstract:
“We find that global gas systems that leak over 4.7% of their methane (when considering a 20-year timeframe) or 7.6% (when considering a 100 year timeframe) are on par with life-cycle coal emissions from methane leaking coal mines.”
Note those figures do not include carbon dioxide emissions when gas or coal are burned. Gordon et al continue:
“We estimate that a gas system leakage rate as low as 0.2% is on par with coal, assuming 1.5% sulfur coal that is scrubbed at a 90% efficiency with no coal mine methane when considering climate effects over a 20 year timeframe. Recent aerial measurement surveys of US oil and gas production basins find wide-ranging natural gas leak rates 0.65% to 66.2%, with similar leakage rates detected worldwide. These numerous super-emitting gas systems being detected globally underscore the need to accelerate methane emissions detection, accounting, and management practices to certify that gas assets are less emissions intensive than coal.”
CANADA AND MEXICO
This methane gas binge is not limited to America. Two very large LNG export terminals are expected online on Canada’s west coast in 2025 and 2027 shipping mainly fracked gas from Western Canada. Mexico has three LNG ports under construction: “Fast LNG Altamira offshore and onshore and Fast LNG Lakach, both located on Mexico’s east coast, and Energia Costa Azul, located on Mexico’s west coast.” (U.S. Energy Administration November 13, 2023).
THIS LNG PUSH IS NOT JUST TO SAVE EUROPE
The story to cover this massive move into even more climate-wrecking fossil fuels: North America is acting to save Europe after Russian gas supplies were cut off. But research into commercial contracts by three American non-profits finds only 18% of contracts for LNG gas exports is from European buyers. Europe is installing alternative energy quickly and reducing gas dependence. No, the real demand for this fracked gas bonanza comes from Asia and energy speculators. About half these future gas contracts will be playthings of major energy dealers looking to get the highest prices, to win more billions in profits in this deadly game. The rest of us, including our descendants and all other species, lose. Our homes and lives are just play things for the profit machine.
The groups Earth, Public Citizen, and BailoutWatch just released their report “Methane Madness”. You can find it at www.citizen.org or download it here. It is a free .pdf download, short and direct and well worth your time.
LNG EXPORTS WILL RAISE GAS PRICES IN NORTH AMERICA
This report also claims building LNG export terminals will significantly raise prices for Americans trying to heat their homes and American industry. Why? Quoting from “Methane Madness”:
“As the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) put it in a report, “…the expansion of LNG export capability has integrated formerly disparate North American regional natural gas markets into the global market.” What that means, in short: Higher exports lead to higher prices.
The main benchmark price for US fossil gas — based on the Henry Hub delivery depot in Cushing, Oklahoma — has always been significantly cheaper than other global benchmarks used in Europe and Asia. But the more US-produced LNG we export overseas, the more US consumers become competitors in a higher-priced global market.”
On the other hand, the Methane Madness report claims: “If built, the eight pending [LNG export] projects will produce the annual equivalent of 113 coal plants in planet-warming emissions.” Our guest Raymond Pierrehumbert would object strongly. Leaking methane emissions from these LNG operations – from fracking to final destination – can never equal any coal plants. Escaping methane’s warming impact will be half in 12 years and be very slight in 50 years. Burning coal releases large amounts of carbon dioxide that keep heating the planet for thousands of years. You can’t compare the two.
This exaggeration of methane emissions is all over the place. One investor newsletter tells readers: “If all projects currently in the permitting pipeline are approved, GHG emissions from US-approved LNG exports would be greater than one thousand coal-fired power plants.” Now it is a thousand coal plants. There is no source for that and it isn’t true.
BUT SET ALL THAT ASIDE
But set all the numbers and controversy about the methane industry aside. The true threat is carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels – all of them: oil, gas, and coal. If the climate movement and governments put limited attention and money into cleaning up methane emissions, we really are doomed. It is the carbon dioxide, stupid.
Fighting methane is a popular battle. For the past couple of decades, the Russians were content to promote fear of natural methane from the warming Arctic sea bed – but not their own world-infamous leaky pipeline system and gas sales. During the early 2000’s, methane was the only allowable climate action for the oil industry President and Vice President Bush and Cheney. They approved collecting methane from landfills but tried to stop NASA scientist James Hansen from speaking about climate change. Unfortunately, while a real risk, humans have a history of using methane fear as a distraction.
The fight against the largest carbon maker coal is making progress in many countries, especially as renewables like solar and wind are cheaper to install and operate. But we hardly hear a whimper about the oil that drives the world. Who is campaigning to stop new oil drilling? Who is trying to block oil tankers? Who will apply tough sanctions against oil producing countries? Nobody. That silence could cost us a future you want to live in. If we do not slash carbon dioxide emission with emergency action, we loose this green, nurturing planet to a hot hostile landscape of extinction and extremes.
Keep the focus. Stop putting carbon dioxide into the sky.
BILL GATES ON CLIMATE
What do the Davos men and billionaires think is going to happen? Here is Bill Gates with Alastair Campbell on ’The Rest is Politics” podcast January 2024.
“The world does not end at 2C…We will get there, there’s no stopping us passing 2C. In temperate zone countries in terms of your overall economy or livelihoods it’s actually not a gigantic thing…You have to pay to make various changes, you have to have air conditioning.”
“The really bad stuff is if you let it go, say above 3C or if you live near the equator and you’re dependent for your food on yearly harvests, you have no savings.”
Bill Gates spoke with Alastair Campbell on The Rest is Politics. Alastair Campbell is a former journalist turned strategist and spokesman for Tony Blair and New Labour. He is now a writer, consultant strategist and mental health campaigner.
Bill Gates is an acknowledged gift for the health of poor people all over the world. He and Melinda are among the few who used their wealth to do good. We must always remember that. We don’t need to hate Bill Gates. He is only speaking for most people in developed countries, speaking from a very limited world view. Bill Gates understood many things, but never climate change. He was late to see it, and really still doesn’t see it. That is not evil. It is common.
I’m Alex Smith. My special thanks to listeners who sent donations to help pay expenses this month. Giving it all away and working for next to nothing is not cheap! If you can help, please do. Here is how.
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