A recent report from the German non-profit Climate Analytics argues against “any new gas development in Western Australia based on unconventional resources” claiming that due to “their sheer scale” such development would single-handedly “undermine…the world’s efforts to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate goals.”
The report then goes on to support this claim by citing wildly inflated numbers and failing to mention some rather salient counter arguments: like the fact that natural gas is responsible for cutting global emissions because it is replacing more carbon intensive fuels, or that a shift to renewables will, for a time at least, be dependent on inexpensive domestic natural gas.
But let’s start with the numbers. The report claims;
“Over 90%, or 113,786 PJ, of Australia’s total estimated conventional gas reserves and resources are located onshore and offshore in WA (AEMO 2017). In addition, an estimated 222,057-330,223 PJ of unconventional resources (tight and shale gas) are estimated to be in WA’s Canning and Perth basins.”
It’s important to note that these numbers include both “reserve and resource estimates” which means that these numbers include resources that technically exist but developing them would be sub-economical in the current environment.
It’s unusual to see reserves and resource estimates lumped together in this way — in fact, companies are explicitly directed separate out these figures in their financial reporting — mostly because combining them results in a deceptively large number. By overstating the resources that energy companies in Western Australia would realistically exploit the authors are then able to overstate the amount of GHG emissions that would come from said resources.
What’s more, the argument that natural gas is getting in the way of the world meeting its climate goals is woefully inaccurate. In fact, natural gas usage is frequently credited for decreasing GHG emissions. As the International Energy Agency (IEA) put it in its Commentary: The Environmental Case for Natural Gas:
“The role that natural gas can play in the future of global energy is inextricably linked to its ability to help address environmental problems. With concerns about air quality and climate change looming large, natural gas offers many potential benefits if it displaces more polluting fuels.”
The IEA is far from the only, credible, organization making this point, the UK-based climate group Carbon Brief, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, have all agreed that natural gas is an integral component to reducing global carbon emissions.
Australia’s natural gas can be an especially powerful force in combating global GHG emissions in Asia, particularly since China is importing more and more Australian LNG in an effort to reduce energy intensive coal-fired power and heating and to improve air quality.
While the report is accurate in its assessment that methane emissions are far more potent than carbon dioxide, it ignores the body of scientific research that has concluded methane leakage rates do not negate natural gas’ inherent advantages as a cleaner-burning fuel, as stated by the IEA:
“Taking into account our estimates of methane emissions from both gas and coal, on average, gas generates far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal when generating heat or electricity, regardless of the timeframe considered.”
Lastly, the report hinges upon the author’s presumption that “the role of gas is limited, and eventually, all gas use will be replaced by renewable energy alternatives.” This is a big leap of faith, particularly since the U.S. Energy Information Association projects that world natural gas consumption will increase by 43% by 2040, most aggressively in China and other Australian export markets.
Despite the claims made by this report natural gas is most commonly viewed by energy experts as an integral component of the clean energy industry, particularly because many gas generators are flexible and have quick ramping capabilities to support variable renewable generation. As the IEA puts it:
“Given limits to how quickly renewable energy options can be scaled up…the flexibility that natural gas brings to an energy system can also make it a good fit for the rise of variable renewables such as wind and solar PV.”
All in all Climate Analytics report is an odd combination of inflated numbers, inaccurate claims, and wishful thinking.