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COLUMN: Facts about methane (AKA 'natural' gas)

David Suzuki
By David Suzuki
March 20th, 2024

Global greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures are rising, causing more extreme and unpredictable weather and inflating costs for everything from food to health care. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry — largely responsible for the greatest crisis facing humanity — continues to rake in record profits.

Oil executives want to keep it that way.

For decades, industry has lied, misled and covered up evidence about the consequences of using its products as intended. As far back as 1954, its own scientists accurately assessed the climate impacts of burning coal, oil and gas. Its response was to plough massive resources into campaigns to sow doubt and confusion regarding the clear evidence.

As the consequences scientists have predicted for decades become clear to everyone — droughts, floods, heat domes, wildfires, pollution-related health impacts, melting glaciers and polar ice caps, water shortages, species extinctions, growing numbers of desperate people fleeing inhospitable areas and more — Big Oil has had to concoct new strategies to keep the world hooked on its products.

One of the more egregious is promoting gas as a “climate solution.” You may have seen the ubiquitous ads and “sponsored content” from companies such as Fortis touting “clean LNG” and “renewable natural gas.” For many years, industry has argued that methane gas, which it misleadingly refers to as “natural gas” or “liquefied natural gas,” can be a “bridge” or “transition” fuel to help the world move away from coal and oil, which produce more carbon dioxide emissions when burned.

The companies and their front groups omit some important details. Methane, the main constituent of “natural” gas, is a far more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide over the short term. Although it has a relatively short lifespan compared to CO2, it can trap as much as 80 times more heat over a couple of decades. Methane concentrations have more than doubled over the past 200 years and are responsible for an estimated 30 per cent of global heating.

Although some methane comes from natural sources, most is from human activities, including agriculture, fossil fuels and decomposing landfill waste. With fossil fuel operations, methane is emitted into the atmosphere throughout its life cycle, much of it through intentional and unintentional leaks or flaring (burning off excess gas).

The International Energy Agency warns that if fossil fuel companies don’t reduce these emissions, it will be impossible to meet global climate targets. Of course, quickly shifting away from fossil fuels altogether would be the best way to resolve the problem.

Industry also fails to note that renewable energy is now a far more cost-effective, much cleaner way to produce energy. Substituting natural gas for coal will only slow the necessary transition to renewables.

Research also shows that methane emissions have historically been underestimated, as have their health impacts. Recent studies show that living near flaring and fracking sites is associated with premature births and low birth weight, which “causes higher infant mortality and more chronic illness later in life and is associated with poor lung function,” according to toxicology and public health expert Tim Takaro, professor emeritus in Simon Fraser University’s faculty of health sciences and a member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

It’s far easier to monopolize and concentrate massive profits from fossil fuels than renewable energy, so many oil companies have been reducing their already limited spending on renewable alternatives.

“At the end of the day, we’re a molecule company, not an electron company,” ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods recently said. In a Fortune interview, Woods also said of the energy transition, “The dirty secret nobody talks about is how much all this is going to cost and who’s willing to pay for it.” Exxon raked in US$36 billion profits in 2023 and Woods himself made over US$35 million.

Industry has also been paying to co-opt some First Nations leaders in its efforts to create division and expand gas fracking, production and export in Canada and to oppose necessary climate measures.

Are there no limits to Big Oil’s greedy efforts to keep the money rolling in while everyone suffers from climate change impacts and rising costs of living fuelled by volatile oil and gas markets? For the sake of people and the planet, it has to stop!

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.

Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.

This post was syndicated from https://rosslandtelegraph.com
Categories: GeneralOp/Ed

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