Another blow against methane: LNG is worse for climate than coal at real-world leakage rates, says Dept. of Energy

Out of the Dept. of Energy’s own mouth — well, its accidentally honest press department — comes this stunner. Liquefied natural gas (LNG, or methane compressed into a liquid for long-distance transportation) has no climate benefit.

Why, you may ask? Because all of the supposed climate “savings” are offset — or more than offset — by its leak rate. And thanks to the DoE, we can now translate various leak rates into measurable “global warming potential.” Methane is not a winner.

Let’s start with the valuable Joe Romm at ThinkProgress (my emphasis and paragraphing):

Energy Department Bombshell: LNG Has No Climate Benefit For Decades, IF EVER

An explosive new report from the U.S. Department of Energy makes clear that Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is likely a climate-destroying misallocation of resources. That is, if one uses estimates for methane leakage based on actual observations.

This is the same conclusion I reached back in 2012, based on

■ Emerging analyses of how even a relatively low leakage rate in the natural gas production and delivery system negate its climate benefit, and

■ A 2009 EU report on how the energy-intensive liquefaction process and transportation further increase LNG emissions.

Again, natural gas is mostly methane, and some 86 times (to as much as 105 times) better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

One of the country’s leading experts on natural gas leaks told me, “a close reading of the DOE report in the context of the recent literature indicates that exporting natural gas from the U.S. as LNG is a very poor idea.” …

To make LNG a climate winner, you’d have to assume levels of methane leakage that are a factor of 2 to 3 lower than what recent observations reveal. That is exactly what DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) does in its analysis, “Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Perspective on Exporting Liquefied Natural Gas from the United States.”

Romm shows a chart from the DoE report that asserts (positively) that LNG leakage rates in the U.S.-to-Rotterdam and U.S.-to-Shanghai trade — “methane leakage that occurs during extraction, processing, and transport on a 20-year basis” — to be 1.4% and 1.6% respectively.

That chart discussed in Romm’s piece. The problem — it allows us to evaluate the 20-year climate effect (shown as “GWP” or global warming potential in the chart) of real-world leakage rates as well. Just click here and follow the green and blue lines as they up. The X-axis is leakage; the Y-axis is GWP. The heavy black horizontal line is coal.

See what I mean? Methane is a climate killing disaster at higher leak rates.

By publishing “break-even” leaking points for LNG, DoE allows real-world leakage rates to be evaluated

Break-even leakage evaluations show at what point leakage from methane make LNG a climate-benefiting “deal” relative to coal and other carbon-emitting alternatives. The DoE, of course, is in the business of asserting — using the industry’s word for it — that U.S. LNG is at or near those leakage points.

Why? Because the DoE is apparently in the business of promoting the sale of methane, owned by huge corporations that will profit from it, to LNG customers abroad. They do that by asserting that (1) that U.S. LNG is more climate-friendly than coal; and (2) that U.S. LNG is more climate-friendly than Russian LNG.

For example, here’s what the report says about shipped U.S. LNG compared with coal:

“As previously noted, the calculated breakeven points are the most conservative, so these results do not indicate that natural gas has a higher GHG than coal on a 20-year basis in all cases.”

“Hello, Europe,” the DoE says. “Our methane companies’ product is no worse than coal and better than LNG from Russia.” Nice to have the government selling your product. First the EPA, now the DoE.

Trouble is, these are just assertions, and those leakage rates are fake. But because all leak rates are evaluated in the DoE report, real-world rates can be evaluated as well. Romm:

[L]eakage rates are almost certainly at least double that! Yes, the EPA has lowered its estimate to about 1.5 percentbased solely on industry-provided numbers. But multiple studies in the last two years based on actual observations have made clear the EPA was simply wrong.

Back in November, fifteen scientists from some of the leading institutions in the world — including Harvard, NOAA and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab — published a seminal observation-based study, “Anthropogenic emissions of methane in the United States.” …

The study found greenhouse gas emissions from “fossil fuel extraction and processing (i.e., oil and/or natural gas) are likely a factor of two or greater than cited in existing studies.” … This suggests the methane leakage rate from natural gas production is in fact 3 percent or higher.

Find 3% leakage for the two U.S. lines (green and blue) on the chart. Now look at the GWP for those leak values. Not good.

More from Romm:

A comprehensive Stanford study from February suggested things might even be worse[.] … Their analysis finds:

“… an excess percentage leakage of 1.8% to 5.4% of end use gas. Coupled with the current estimate of 1.8% leakage of end use gas consumed, this generates a high-end estimate of 7.1% gas leakage.”

If you look at the chart, a leakage rate of 7% for the two U.S. products is literally through the roof (the top of the chart). The GWP of methane with a 7% leakage rate would be near double that of straight, dirty, gritty, black local coal (again, the horizontal black line).

Methane leaks everywhere, especially from fracking fields

Romm also cites Dr. Robert Howarth and a 2012 study of methane leakage. (We referenced a different report from Dr. Howarth here, to indicate just how methane-friendly the new EPA “Clean Power Plan” is designed to be.)

From independent observations, provided outside the methane industry, leakage is easily two to four times greater than the industry “estimates” that the DoE depend on — and frankly, if you consider leakage from fracking fields, likely a whole lot more. From an earlier piece on methane and leakage:

[M]easurements show that on one February day in the Uintah Basin, the natural gas field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced, on average, on February days.

But methane, as you’d expect, leaks everywhere it’s handled. Add in leaks during transportation, processing, and delivery to the end-user. Add in accidental (or otherwise) venting by end users, including home-owners. Whenever you turn on the stovetop gas, you’re venting methane until it lights.

In addition, if you’re looking at LNG shipped abroad, add in all of these handlers as well:

From Fracking Fields, to Transportation, to LNG Processing, and then this. Methane leaks at every step in this process. (Source: ThinkProgress)

From Fracking Fields, to Transportation, to LNG Processing Plants, and then the LNG chain. Methane leaks at every step in this process. (Source: ThinkProgress)

Remember, gaseous methane from fracking fields go through handling and transportation, just to get to the start of the chart above. Then the leakage continues.

Conversion to methane is conversion to a planet-changer

Conversion to methane for energy — is conversion to a planet-changer, one worse than CO2 in the short run. The only purpose of a conversion to methane is a conversion to industry-owned dollars, barely-taxed and often-rebated dollars at that.

That methane is “clean” is an industry-created, U.S. government–abetted lie. Tell everyone you know. It matters.

Methane doesn’t just displace coal — it displaces renewables as well

The problem with methane doesn’t end with its carbonification of the air. It actually prevents other solutions from occurring. By converting to methane — dangerous in itself — we fail to convert to wind, solar, hydro and other renewable sources of energy. Also dangerous.

Put differently, in the same way Obama’s ACA prevents the expansion of Medicare, Obama’s conversion to methane prevents conversion to non-carbon energy sources. Did I say “Obama”? I meant it.


[N]atural gas doesn’t just displace coal — it also displaces carbon-free sources of power such as renewable energy, nuclear power, and energy efficiency. …

Investing billions of dollars in new shale gas infrastructure for domestic use is, as we’ve seen, a bridge to nowhere — especially until we put in place both a CO2 price [carbon tax] and regulations to minimize methane leakage. The extra emissions from LNG completely eliminate whatever benefit there might be of building billion-dollar export terminals and other LNG infrastructure, which in any case will last many decades, long after we need a nearly carbon-free electric grid.

All to make money for the wealthiest corporations on the planet. Why would he, and they, do that?

Will someone investigate the methane industry’s ties to the U.S. government?

I swear the U.S. government is in bed with Big Methane.

Anyone want to take this on as an investigation project? Industry ties to other government agencies are just so blatant, and there’s literally billions/year in revenue at stake here. No one in government is handing across all that dough for free. No one in government is that naïve, or generous.



Twitter: @Gaius_Publius
Gaius Publi

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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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