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CLIMATE CHANGE: How Eco-Friendly Is Natural Gas?

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 22 2009 (IPS) - Natural gas, a non-renewable yet plentiful energy source, is being promoted by the gas industry as part of the solution to climate change. But experts say that its contribution to global warming is only slightly less than that of coal and oil.

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a fossil fuel like crude and coal; when burned it produces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, so called because they trap the heat of the sun’s rays in the atmosphere, warming the earth’s surface. Methane itself is a powerful greenhouse gas.

Experts say that natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, but it is not in the same league as renewable energy sources.

Natural gas could play “a key role” in the mitigation of climate change, Roberto Brandt, chair of the coordinating committee of the International Gas Union (IGU) which has a membership of 750 experts from industry associations in over 100 countries, told IPS.

Brandt, who took part in the 24th World Gas Conference held Oct. 5-9 in Buenos Aires, insisted that natural gas is an abundant and growing resource that is 25-30 percent less polluting than oil and its by-products, and 45-50 percent cleaner than coal and its derivatives.

These data, which will be presented in December at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 15) in Copenhagen, were confirmed, but also qualified, by experts from the Argentine non-governmental Bariloche Foundation, which works for sustainable development.

“In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas is a lesser evil than the heavier solid and liquid fossil fuels,” economist Osvaldo Girardín of the Bariloche Foundation, who is a co-author of the Argentine national report on emissions to be presented at COP 15, told IPS.

But “it’s nowhere near as clean as renewable energy sources, like wind and solar energy and biomass,” he added. “On balance natural gas has certain things in its favour, but using it would not mean the end of greenhouse gas emissions.”

In Brazil, for instance, where hydroelectric plants provide close to 80 percent of the country’s energy, replacing them with natural gas fired plants would be a step backward. In China or the United States, on the other hand, where most electricity comes from coal fired thermal plants, “it would contribute to mitigation,” said Girardín.

Brandt admitted that “the energy sector is responsible for over 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, and has a key role in any solution to the problem of climate change.” In the current circumstances, natural gas is the fossil fuel that produces the lowest emissions, he said.

All the projections for the global energy mix in the future include the growing use of natural gas, said Brandt. As a conservative estimate, its share will increase from 21 percent at present to 23 percent in 2030, and in a “green policy scenario” it could reach 28 percent by 2030, he said.

The “green policy scenario” he referred to is one in which carbon dioxide emissions are strongly discouraged, for example by taxing them. This is one of the options being studied by the states party to the Convention on Climate Change for the next round of commitments to emissions reductions, after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

The IGU claims that the natural gas industry can contribute to emissions reductions. Carbon dioxide capture and storage – collecting it from power plants and depositing it in abandoned oilfields – is one way that this is being done in Norway.

Another advantage, according to Brandt, is that natural gas is a more efficient fuel relative to coal and oil, while it also cuts down on emissions: for every kilowatt-hour of electricity produced, methane emits 0.35 kilograms of carbon dioxide, compared to an average of 0.80 kilograms for coal and 1.2 kilograms for lignite, a form of coal with lower calorific value.

Far from concerning itself with developing renewable energy sources, the natural gas industry presents itself as a complement to them. “Gas pipelines and distribution networks for natural gas are already being used for the transport of biogas,” obtained from fermentation, Brandt said.

Daniel Bouille, head of the energy programme at the Bariloche Foundation, said that since 40 percent of electrical energy is produced in coal-fired plants which emit much more carbon dioxide, natural gas is a better option.

If the share of natural gas in energy production rises, “so much the better,” but it cannot be promoted as if it were a completely clean energy source, he said.

During production and distribution of natural gas, the amount of leakage of methane, which has a greenhouse effect more than 20 times as powerful as that of carbon dioxide, is barely two percent of the total produced, Bouille said.

Methane is also released through venting of oil-associated natural gas, which is simply wasted when there is no provision for collecting or reinjecting it. The oil industry often resorts to flaring this gas, sending additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

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