Monday, June 7, 2010

Natural gas and the climate movement

The most serious controversy that has emerged in the climate movement this year is probably about the role of natural gas in a transition to a zero-emissions society.

The national climate summit in March did not debate gas, but decisions taken there have influenced the debate. A decision of that summit was to campaign to “replace Australia's dirtiest coal-fired power station, Hazelwood, with clean energy by 2012”.

At the vote, there was dissent, including the argument that the 2012 deadline “suggests that a gas station would replace it”. Rather, the “focus should be on what will replace Hazelwood”, some said. In the end the proposition was passed with 84% of the vote, despite the objection.

Replace Hazelwood with gas?

Since then, Environment Victoria has taken up the campaign with enthusiasm. A report for EV by energy market analysts Green Energy Markets (GEM) has provided one plan for replacing Hazelwood.

Launching the report, GEM director Ric Brazzale said: “By combining new renewable energy with efficient gas and energy efficiency measures we can cut Hazelwood’s annual emissions of 16.2 million tonnes to 1.8 million tonnes, which would reduce Victoria’s emissions by 12% annually, as well as freeing up 27 billion litres of water for other uses.”

Two possible scenarios are examined in the report. They say either 1180 or 970 megawatts of gas plants should replace Hazelwood. Reliance on gas would decline over time as energy efficiency measures slowly replace 25% of Hazelwood’s current output. The rest would be taken up by 1500MW of renewable generation (mostly wind) — running at a typical 30% of capacity.

But there is significant dissent to the advocacy of gas. And there is an alternative plan on its way.

Beyond Zero Emissions will release the first stage of its Zero Carbon Australia plan in July. BZE director Matt Wright told Green Left Weekly that this plan would replace Hazelwood by December 2013.

“One extra year of Hazelwood's emissions doesn't justify locking in 50 years burning gas”, Wright said, in reference to the possible lifespan of a gas plant.

The Australian Energy Market Operator lists more than 20 gas power plant proposals on the drawing board across Australia, some at an advanced stage of planning. They total 8600MW of generating capacity. Hazelwood itself is a 1600MW plant.

Australia is also seeing a massive increase in gas drilling and export with the opening up of coal seam gas, especially in rural Queensland. Some climate activists fear an expansion in gas use, which is occuring worldwide, will lead to an increase in “fugitive emissions” — methane leaks. “Conventional gas is also pretty dirty”, Wright said.

Strategic uses of gas?

Clearly, gas use is expanding dramatically. Renewable energy expert and author, Dr Mark Diesendorf, told GLW: “I agree with others that we must resist the wholesale replacement of coal-fired power stations with gas.”

However, Diesendorf also supports “a limited role for gas, because renewable energy is not yet ready to take over all of gas’s roles”. In particular, areas where Diesendorf believes renewables are not yet ready include “back-up/booster for solar hot water, solar thermal power and wind power”.

He said: “The highest priority must be to stop the construction of new coal-fired power stations and to shut down dinosaurs such as Hazelwood ASAP. I don't see a problem if the environment movement advocates a mix of energy efficiency, gas and renewable electricity to replace coal.”

Fantasy and strategy

Is the notion that renewable energy can rapidly replace Hazelwood, as outlined by BZE, just a fantasy? Wright believes it is realistic.

“You can dial companies and they will roll out the technology”, he said. “They are already set up in Australia — construction giant Leighton is owned by ACS Cobra, who are building the [solar thermal] power towers in Spain.”

The greatest barrier to replacing Australia’s shameful use of fossil fuels is political will on the part of government. Perhaps the fantasy is not the technology available for the transition, but the political change in such a short time? Would a victory on Hazelwood — with gas — be the boost that the movement sorely needs?

These are not rhetorical questions: they demand serious consideration.

But at the same time, the value of a win with gas is questionable when industry and government are embarking on gas expansion anyway. And there are real problems with fugitive emissions — not to mention spending money on gas that could be used for renewable energy right now.

Climate activists need to weigh these options. It’s not about who are the “real” environmentalists, or drawing battle lines within the movement. It’s a matter of strategy and tactics and having a dialogue — and agreeing to disagree where we have to.

An old maxim says, in political alliances, “march separately, but strike together”. Different opinions within the movement can civilly compete for support within the context of a common goal — in this case, forcing the government to begin shutting down coal power stations.


  1. Replace Hazelwood attempts to take advantage of a political opportunity created by the double election year, public dissatisfaction with the climate change policies of the major political groupings and the increasingly marginal economic basis for Hazelwood's continuation. As such if it is to happen, it needs to both happen now and make use of available opportunities. It is unfortunate that the chance to mount this campaign comes before the Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) strategy (Zero Carbon Australia) is complete. The first stage of this strategy covering Stationary Energy (mostly power generation) will be launched in July but proper evaluation of the effectiveness of the first stage requires completion of other stages particularly I think the one dealing with energy efficiency. I’m not aware of the timetable for completion of any of the other sections of Zero Carbon Australia.

    This has meant that the grassroots movement is committed to a strategy that can't yet be evaluated but which excludes the use of gas as a useful transition fuel. Natural gas has been widely regarded as a clean burning fuel that produces less greenhouse gas emissions than coal when burned. Very recently the spotlight has been turned on the total emissions burden of gas fired power generation.

    BZE cites as evidence in support of its position on gas a recent (April 2010) two-page un-refereed draft article by Cornell University Professor Robert Howarth which specifically addresses emissions from coal seam gas but touches on what he sees as the problem of the underestimation of the greenhouse implications of fugitive emissions from gas distribution networks. Although the argument Howarth makes seems highly plausible to me, he himself points to the absence of overall assessment of the greenhouse emissions potential of gas as a fuel. So if he can be believed this is at the moment an idea that needs careful work before it is either validated or refuted.

    To drive the ‘Replace Hazelwood’ campaign Environment Victoria necessarily relied on research based on the current scientific consensus in its attempt to convince governments to act. Hence the commissioned research underpinning the campaign builds on a more or less equally distributed three way split between energy efficiencies, renewable energy (exclusively composed of schemes already in train) and gas fired generation for which substantial emissions reductions are claimed. If the campaign was successful and Hazelwood was replaced as intended, it is claimed that this would produce a 12% reduction in Victoria's greenhouse gas burden. It is worth noting that even if Howarth’s predictions prove to be correct the 12% reduction in Victorian emissions would become a 10% reduction in Victorian emissions.

    This situation has resulted in much discussion within the movement over how to support a campaign that achieves a desired goal (closing a brown coal fired power station) but utilizes a strategy that contains a fossil fuel component. Opposition to installing new gas fired power generation capacity is based on the political assessment that it creates a precedent that will make it more difficult later to argue against use of gas. This may be true but credible opposition to the use of gas requires solid evidence that we don’t yet have.

    This discussion has so far produced more heat than light but despite this, grassroots climate action groups are solidly backing the campaign with widespread doorknocking. The movement seems to be marching separately but still striking together. Hopefully tensions created by deeply held commitment to a variety of positions won’t produce splits.

  2. The fact that BZE's plan is not yet complete is indeed regrettable. However, that in itself does not mean that a 100% renewable replacement for Hazelwood is impossible. Spain has built far more solar thermal baseload capacity than the output of Hazelwood over just a couple of years. We could do this here.

    The real problem for the government is that it would be very expensive to begin building solar thermal plants. Of course once we were up and running with the first few, the costs would decline significantly. So doing this would only make sense if they were preparing for a generalised move to renewables. Otherwise, gas and wind (probably with remaining coal, too, sadly) makes sense for them.

  3. Gas is dirty energy and is as dirty as coal – we must expose repeated Labor untruth that “gas is clean energy”.

    False assertions clearly utterly undermine rational risk management crucial for minimizing risk to Australians. However the Australian Labor Government is utterly incorrect in its repeated assertion that “natural gas is clean energy”. This untruth remains uncorrected and is now spreading through society, through media, schools and even into the environment movement, notably the World Wildlife Fund, Australia (WWF) and Environment Victoria (EV).

    The Australian Government repeatedly states that “gas is clean energy” but the truth is otherwise – natural gas is dirty energy and on combustion is twice as carbon dioxide (CO2) polluting as brown coal on a weight basis. Further, in Victoria the carbon pollution currently ranges from 1.2-1.5 tonnes C/MWh for major brown coal plants and 0.6-0.9 tonnes C/MWh for major gas-fired plants – gas may be “clean-er” on this basis but is certainly not “clean”.

    However even the asserted “clean-er” status of gas as a fossil fuel is belied by the recent analysis by Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University, New York, USA, who concludes that when one factors in industrial gas leakage "“A complete consideration of all emissions from using natural gas seems likely to make natural gas far less attractive than oil and not significantly better than coal in terms of the consequences for global warming."

    Until the dangerous falsehood of “gas is clean energy” is fulsomely, unequivocally and publicly retracted, Labor is utterly unfit to govern Australia – decent, sensible, pro-environment Australians concerned about the safety of their fellow citizens must Vote 1 Green and Put Labor Last (for documented details see “Gas is dirty energy & may be dirtier than coal – Oz Labor’s “gas is clean energy” means Put Labor Last”, Bellaciao: ).

    Yours sincerely,

    Dr Gideon Polya, Macleod, Melbourne, Victoria 3085, Australia

  4. The discussion about the serious threat of methane leakes from gas infrastructure has already been covered in Green Left (where this article originally appeared).

    Natural gas: transition fuel or greenhouse menace?
    Sunday, May 16, 2010
    By Renfrey Clarke

    Say what you will about coal, but at least it stays where it’s put. On its way to the user, coal doesn’t gush from the rail trucks, spreading itself through the atmosphere and warming it at about 70 times the rate of carbon dioxide.

    Natural gas is different. A new draft study provides evidence that, in the US, enough natural gas leaks into the air to give gas-fired electricity, megawatt-hour for megawatt-hour, a bigger greenhouse impact than electricity from good-quality steaming coal.


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