In a recent C2C Journal article (a shorter version of which was published in the Financial Post) I pointed out that, since switching coal-fuelled electricity plants to natural gas cuts their CO2 emissions in half, exporting Canadian liquefied natural gas (LNG) to displace coal in other countries would both benefit our nation’s economy and reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Further, because converting gasoline and diesel-fuelled vehicles and ships to natural gas cuts emissions by 25 per cent, such a goal could substantially decrease domestic emissions as well. It’s not unusual for my columns to draw criticism, but presenting a practical and achievable way to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions seemed to me the least likely to do so. I was proven wrong!
Criticism of my columns typically falls into two categories. Those incapable of disputing the facts often resort to personal attacks. In this case, I was accused in the Financial Post comments section of writing a “propaganda piece for the fossil fuel industry.” I retired from the energy industry 15 years ago and disposed of all my investments in it. But if being an engineer with 30 years of experience in the energy industry is a sin, I plead guilty.
Predictable response: A recent Financial Post column by Gwyn Morgan, a longer version of which ran in C2C Journal, attracted both ad hominin attacks and scientifically-invalid criticisms.
The second category of critics dispute the validity of my analysis. In this case, criticism focused on so-called “fracked gas.” One commentalleged that, “Burning fracked gas is usually worse for the climate than burning coal.” That is false on two levels.Anti-fossil fuel zealots have coined the derogatory term “fracked gas,” falsely claiming it constitutes a health hazard to those who burn it. In fact, hydraulic fracturing is merely a process to get at the resource down in the reservoir and produce it economically; it has nothing whatsoever to do with the nature of the gas itself.
Much of our natural gas is locked in rock that is too solid or “tight” to allow gas to easily flow to a well and from there to the surface. Producing such gas requires the physical creation of cracks (fractures, hence “fracking”). Those fractures are created by injecting fluid under high pressure, mostly water along with small amounts of vegetable oil, household cleansers, automotive anti-freeze and other additives, followed by sand to hold open the cracks. But whichever way natural gas happens to be produced, it is made of the same methane molecule – CH4. And it’s incontrovertible that natural gas burns much cleaner, and with lower CO2 emissions, than coal or crude oil.
A more substantial criticism of relying more on natural gas is that leaks during its production and transportation release methane, which in an unburnt state is a potent greenhouse gas. But those unwanted emissions are miniscule compared to the environmental benefits of displacing higher emissions from coal and liquid fuels. And again, they have nothing to do with which process (fracturing or conventional drilling) is used to access the gas resource. In addition, the energy industry has been working continually to reduce such unwanted emissions, while regulatory authorities have tightened standards. So this problem is being dealt with.
Raising issues about the environmental impact of gas production and transportation is certainly fair game. But what about the environmental impact of producing wind and solar energy?
A study last year by the Manhattan Institute, an independent New York-based think-tank, found that replacing the energy output of a single 100-megawatt natural gas-fuelled power plant requires a minimum of twenty 170-metre-tall windmills, together occupying 10 square miles (25.9 square kilometres) of land. Building that wind farm requires 30,000 tons of iron ore, 50,000 tons of concrete and 900 tons of non-recyclable plastics (mainly for the mammoth blades).
Moreover, the wind farm can only replace the natural gas plant’s power when the wind is blowing sufficiently. Making the wind farm’s power output reliable would require the storage capacity of 10,000 tons of Tesla-class batteries. Mining the minerals to produce those batteries would consume huge amounts of fossil fuel to power the heavy equipment, not to mention imposing severe environmental and social impacts. By comparison, building that natural gas-fuelled power plant requires less than 10 per cent of the raw materials required for the wind farm and, once built, it occupies just a few acres of land – about 1/1,000th the land area of the wind farm. And it saves large numbers of eagles and other birds from being killed by windmill blades.
What about solar panels? The Manhattan Institute report includes U.S. Department of Energy data showing that the material requirements to produce a given amount of solar energy are some 60 per cent higher even than for wind turbines. And, to make them reliable sources of power 24-hours-a-day, solar farms would also need all those storage batteries. In reality, because mass battery storage is unachievable in practical or economic terms, wind and solar facilities all need to be backed up by a reliable power source that can kick in when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. In North America, that source is almost always natural gas. So we need more natural gas even as we frantically build wind and solar farms!
Clearly, building wind and solar farms that could replace the 84 per cent of global energy currently supplied by fossil fuels is technically impossible and would be very damaging to the environment. Moreover, the colossal costs of trying to do so would drive electricity prices to what, for most people, would be ruinous levels.
There is still another compelling reason why wind and solar are not the answer to reducing global emissions. Just 1.3 billion of the Earth’s 7.9 billion inhabitants live in advanced economies where those costly investments might even be possible. Most of the other 6.6 billion are striving to lift themselves out of poverty, largely by increasing their access to fossil fuels. That’s why almost all of the current increase in oil and coal demand is occurring in non-OECD countries.
For example, the International Energy Agency in this report estimates that crude oil demand in OECD countries will increase by just 1.5 million barrels per day over the next five years, while demand in non-OECD countries will increase from 51.7 to 58.3 million barrels per day. Shifting as much as possible of that increasing energy consumption to natural gas is the only realistic way of arresting CO2 emissions growth in those countries.
In the end, what sparked the most strident criticism of my column is the inconvenient truth that a “net-zero” emissions utopia cannot be reached unless fossil fuels are eliminated. The day may come when breakthroughs such as nuclear fusion make that possible. In the meantime, the world is blessed with natural gas — an energy source that’s safe, plentiful, economical, practical and highly effective at substantially reducing emissions, if only our political leaders would understand that.
Gwyn Morgan is a retired business leader who has been a director of five global corporations.