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McKibben: Natural gas 'doing both big methane and big carbon damage'


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McKibben: Natural gas 'doing both big methane and big carbon damage'

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Bill McKibben, author and environmentalist


Fearing a future where fossil fuels are further entrenched inthe global energy system, climate activist Bill McKibben is doubling down on hiscriticism of the oil and gas industry.

McKibben, in a recent article in The Nation, singled out the industry's role in releasing large quantitiesof methane emissions into the atmosphere, and he rebuked leaders for allowing natural gas to become a widely acceptedcomponent of the U.S.'s efforts to move to a lower-carbon energy sector.

As the pioneer of hydraulic fracturing, the U.S. has pushed gasas a climate-friendly substitute for more carbon-intensive fuels. But McKibben saidthat the nation has "gotten thechemistry wrong" in deciding that natural gas' relatively lowerCO2 emissions are more impactful than the methane emissions associated with thefuel's production, transportation and end-use delivery. Regulators and industry observers severely underestimatedhow much methane was escapinginto the atmosphere and accelerating the planet's warming, but even now that methaneemissions data is becoming more refined, the U.S. remains "the planet's salesman"for natural gas, he said.

"Fossil fuels are the problem in global warming — and fossilfuels don't come in good and bad flavors," he wrote.

Low natural gas prices, combined with new regulations, have reducedthe country's reliance on coaland lowered U.S. carbon dioxide emissionsfrom power generation in recent years. The U.S. EPA's Clean Power Plan would continuethat momentum before turningits attention to gas.Meanwhile, the EPA is also developing a suite of regulations to on methane emissions from oiland gas companies.

McKibben, who has written extensively on climate issues sincehis 1989 book The End of Nature, is currentlyon prolonged travel in remote areas with limited phone reception, but he recentlyparticipated in a brief email Q&A with S&P Global Market Intelligence. Thefollowing is an edited version of that exchange.

S&P Global MarketIntelligence: What steps can policymakers take at this juncture to best addressmethane emissions? How do you successfully combat the momentum that this industryhas built up?

McKibben: First, . New York's[fracking] moratorium is an excellent idea, and there are many possibilities, coastto coast, to block the new infrastructure, from pipelines to LNG ports to compressorstations, on which expansion depends.

Is there a point at whichmethane emissions could be sufficiently controlled to make gas — as a coal or oilsubstitute — a preferable option?

Not in the realworld, especially because — and this is important — there's endlessresearch showing that natural gas is now undercutting zero-carbon renewables withvicious power, so it's doing both big methane and big carbon damage.

If gas is not a reasonablebridge fuel, how do we reliably and affordably address the large power demand invery concentrated urban areas without peaking fossil generation?

I think we concentrate on continuing to bend the renewable costcurve sharply downward and not undercut that progress by expanding any further theuse of gas. … There doesn't seem to be any danger that fossil fuels will go awayovernight, much as atmospheric chemistry might wish it. The point is to keep themfrom getting any more entrenched, and to steepen the trajectory away from them andtowards renewables just as fast as is possible — and a little faster, perhaps, giventhe latest news from the Antarctic.

What does the U.S. needto do to see that any gas development that is done abroad is done in a manner thatbest protects the climate?

If we have great trouble stopping methane leakage in Texas andPennsylvania, our odds of achieving it in less developed nations with poorer environmentalcontrols seem… slim. So if I were the [U.S.] State Department, I'd stop pushingit abroad. And I fear that the results of shipping it around the world, in termsof methane leakage, are going to be bad.