Commentary

Energy security and climate change demand real action, not shaky promise of ‘low-emission gas’

March 29, 2022 12:02 am

A natural gas -fired power plant. (Stock photo via Getty Images)

By Dan Grossman

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underscores the extent to which energy security is national security, not only in the U.S. but across the globe.

With the current roiling of global energy markets, we need strong action to keep these resources in the pipes, rather than our atmosphere. Alarmingly, U.S. oil and gas operators currently waste $2 billion of gas every year through methane leaks, venting and flaring – resources that could be put to use by America and our allies. 

Virginia Senate Bill 565, now sitting on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk, hopes to mitigate this waste in part by creating a category of “low-emission natural gas” that consumers would pay more for with the assurance that it’s less waste-riddled and damaging for the climate.

Unfortunately, many of the certification schemes used to designate “low-emission natural gas” rely on questionable data at best, and some have been found to underestimate emissions by up to 60 percent

Signing this legislation into law would leave ratepayers across Virginia paying a premium to companies that can’t actually prove their gas is any cleaner or their emissions are any lower. It’s a bad deal for consumers and the climate, and would do nothing to make the U.S. or our allies more energy secure. 

Less hot air, more concrete action

Gas without methane pollution should be the standard, not the exception. 

Stakeholders concerned about the climate, such as investors or utility companies, should be loud and clear with oil and gas companies: Producers of oil and gas must demonstrate that they are reducing emissions and holding them at near zero leak rates using the most modern measurement technologies and methodologies. 

SB 565 would give its “low-emission natural gas” stamp of approval to companies who may not be pursuing these rigorous standards, highlighting the need for policymakers to slow down before picking winners and losers based on uncertain data. 

Real solutions depend on sound data

Ensuring that the natural gas we use to heat our homes or generate electricity is produced w

ithout unchecked emissions of methane requires solid data and measurements, but an alarming share of certification programs rely on hypothetical math equations instead. 

These “emission factors” are notorious for underestimating emissions, and essentially multiply an assumed amount of pollution by how much gas a company produces or the number of pieces of equipment it operates. 

Surveys relying on this method have undercounted emissions by up to 60 percent – underscoring that while the emissions figures from these methods might look good on paper, they’re entirely removed from what’s happening in the real world. 

Relying on this sketchy data also risks encouraging companies to chase down “paper emission reductions,” rather than getting out into the field to measure and reduce the very real pollution from their facilities. Furthermore, oil and gas companies are often able to cherry-pick facilities that they already know are low-emitting for certification, leaving dirtier facilities uncertified and hidden from view. 

SB 565 fails to take these issues into account as written. With Virginians increasingly feeling the impacts of climate change – from an eroding coastline to more intense flooding – and seeing the importance of energy security play out on the global stage, the only emission cuts that matter are the ones that actually exist.

Dan Grossman is the associate vice president for energy transition at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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