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Natural gas' impact on GHG emissions overstated, says Pembina

By Mark Sabourin
EcoLog, 1/23/2015 8:20:00 AM

Natural gas may serve as a bridge fuel to a low-carbon economy, but the Pembina Institute argues that its impact on global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is overstated. In a January 22, 2015 webinar, Pembina B.C. Director Josha MacNab took particular issue with the B.C. government’s assertions that exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) will be a significant contribution by the province to global GHG reduction because it will displace coal in markets such as China.

That’s not necessarily the case, said MacNab. There are uncertainties about the lifecycle GHG contribution of natural gas. If natural gas is to play an important role in the transition to low-carbon energy, money will have to be invested in new technologies, including methane management.

Even more important than methane management, however, is strong climate policy. MacNab argued that if coupled with strong climate policy, including a price on carbon and an end to fossil fuel subsidies, natural gas will displace coal and will eventually be replaced by renewables. But in the absence of strong climate policy, natural gas will simply retain its place in the energy mix, growing but not displacing more damaging fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

“It’s the climate policy that will determine the energy mix and whether we are headed toward dangerous climate change, not simply the availability of natural gas,” said MacNab.

As the “LNG and Climate Change: The Global Context” makes clear, it’s all about infrastructure replacement. Strong climate policies encourage the early replacement of carbon-generating infrastructure. Coal-fired plants are likely to be shut well before their normal end-of-life. Gas-fired plants will be strong candidates to succeed them, but they too will likely be retired early, replaced by renewable energy sources or not replaced at all if conservation measures succeed. Under this scenario, demand for natural gas grows precipitously until approximately 2030, and then begins a steady decline.

However, in the absence of strong climate policy, coal-fired plants continue to operate through to their normal end-of-life, and are perhaps refurbished and extended beyond. There is nothing for gas to displace.

“In the absence of strong climate policy, LNG simply feeds an increasing energy demand with additional fossil fuels,” said MacNab.

The webinar was based on “LNG and Climate Change: The Global Context”, a Pembina report commissioned by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions. The report was issued late 2014.

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