Just after WW2 my parents settled into their new home. The stove and cooktop were powered by gas and my mother cooked with gas for the next seventy years.
I did not take much notice of the fact she cooked with gas because I regarded it as being quite normal. And today gas is a popular fuel.
When I took to gas for a barbecue after failing one day with damp wood, I realised that there are different kinds of gas, and it is necessary to know which one is which. So it was a big surprise to me that the gas which is used to power stoves and cooktops is methane.
The reason it was such a surprise was that by this time I had learned that methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. As Bob Carter tells us in his book “Taxing Air” (2011, page 92) about greenhouse gases:
“… and the most important, in order of magnitude of their overall contribution to greenhouse warming, is water vapour (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4).”
I could see how those three are closely related in the chemical formula for the burning, or oxidation, of methane: CH4 + 2O2 => CO2 + 2H2O.
There is some controversy over the role of water vapour. On the one hand clouds reduce the Sun’s radiation, reflecting the Sun’s rays back into space and act to cool the Earth. At the same time clouds absorb heat from the surface and help to warm the Earth. The temperature rise since 1970 of 0.4 of a degree C should, by chemical theory, increase water vapour in the atmosphere by 4% – which has been found to be true.
“Water vapour is the most effective greenhouse gas… responsible for 60% of the total heat absorption by the atmosphere. Increasing the global temperature increases evaporation from the ocean and so increases total water vapour.” (Tony Eggleton, “A Short Introduction to Climate Change,” Cambridge UP, 2013, pp 62-64).
“The rise in atmospheric CO2 has been inexorable… and as I write  it stands at 396 ppm [in 2020, 415 ppm]; in 1750 it was 275 ppm. Another greenhouse gas (CH4, methane) has more than doubled in its atmospheric concentration.” (Eggleton, op.cit, p55).
The definition of natural gas, from Wikipedia:
“The mining and consumption of natural gas is a major and growing driver of climate change. It is a potent greenhouse gas itself when released into the atmosphere and creates carbon dioxide during oxidation. Natural gas can be efficiently burned to generate heat and electricity, emitting less waste and toxins at the point of use relative to other fossil and biomass fuels. However, gas venting and flaring, along with unintended fugitive emissions through the supply chain, can result in a similar carbon footprint …
“…While the lifetime of atmospheric methane is relatively short when compared to carbon dioxide, with a half-life of about seven years, it is more efficient in trapping heat in the atmosphere so that a given quantity of methane has 84X the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period and 28X over a 100-year period.
“Natural gas is thus a potent greenhouse gas due to the strong radiative forcing of methane in the short term and the continuing effects of carbon dioxide in the long term.”
The extraction of natural gas is of a technological nature. It is called ‘fracking’. It is about vertically fracturing rock at depth into the ground; sometimes horizontally as well, perhaps deep down:
“… high pressure water “fracks” the rock for release of the gas – sand and other particles added to water keep the fractures open – chemicals added to reduce friction and inhibit corrosion – frack fluid flows back to the surface with the gas, creating water with high salt content and other chemicals…
“The decades in development of drilling technology for conventional and unconventional oil and gas production has not only improved access to natural gas, but also posed significant adverse impacts on environmental and public health.” (Wikipedia).
[Which are accusations also aimed at coal]
“… carcinogenic chemicals, i.e. benzene and ethylbenzene, have been used as gelling agents in water and chemical mixtures for high volume horizontal fracking… water, chemicals and frack fluid (flowback or produced water) may contain radioactive materials, heavy metals and hydrocarbons [which cause] pollution of the water cycle [to be] recycled into other fracking operations or injected into deep underground wells – eliminating the water used in fracking from the hydrologic cycle.” (Wikipedia)
There is also the risk of explosion with gas. In the USA 1994-2013, there were 745 serious incidents with gas distribution, 275 fatalities, 1059 injuries and more than $110m property damage. (Wikipedia).
To make people aware of leaking gas, the colourless and almost odourless gas is odorised with a scent similar to rotten eggs [like hydrogen sulphide]. (Wikipedia).
“To reduce its greenhouse emissions, the Government of the Netherlands is subsidising a transition away from natural gas for all homes in the country by 2050. In Amsterdam, no new residential gas accounts are allowed as of 1 July, 2018, and all homes in the city are expected to be converted by 2040 to use the excess heat from adjacent industrial buildings and operations.” (Wikipedia)
“Based on an estimated 2015 world consumption rate of about 3400 cubic kilometres of gas per year, the total estimated remaining economically recoverable reserves of natural gas would last 250 years at current consumption rates. An annual increase of 2-3% could result in current recoverable reserves lasting significantly less, perhaps as few as 80-100 years.” (Wikipedia)
Meanwhile we use natural gas as a fuel, and for the production of fertiliser, hydrogen, animal and fish feed, fabrics, glass, steel, plastic, paint, synthetic oil…
How can we do without it?
In The Weekend Australian (27/9/2020) Chris Mitchell wrote an article (pay-walled) titled “Scott Morrison takes a hit from pundits, but he is cooking with gas.”
He discusses the “pundits” in the first two paragraphs:
“Many journalists seemed not to understand Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s support for gas-fired power generation this month.
“The ABC, the Nine newspapers and the Guardian saw Morrison’s September 14 gas announcement as a betrayal of the environment. On Sky News, backing gas was seen as betraying conservative voters. Both views are just politics.”
And of course, Murdoch writers can handle “politics”: it’s the science they have difficulty with. Mitchell tells us that many countries have been “integrating renewable into their power grids… using gas to ‘firm’ their systems as wind and solar have made generation less stable.” Luckily, he says, Australia has only been talking about slowly phasing out coal. He criticises other countries or states such as California for phasing out gas peakers which Australia is supporting, and California has been hit by blackouts as was South Australia in September 2016. No explanation, except that SA has renewables – forget the storm blowing down the powerlines.
Environmental fundamentalists, he says, are against any technology with a carbon footprint but reject nuclear power, “the best source of clean baseload electricity.”
Now we let us just pause there, because he will make that same claim again.
At Independent Australia (4/10/2020) Karl Grossman writes under the heading “Nuclear power: A gargantuan threat.” He says:
“Of the assertion that nuclear power is carbon free – that’s untrue. The nuclear fuel cycle – mining, milling, enrichment – is carbon intensive and nuclear plants themselves emit radioactive carbon 14.”
He refers to sciencedirect.com “Nuclear Fuels: Behaviour at High Burnup” citing ID Palmer in “Encyclopedia of Materials: Science and Technology,” 2002.
But Mitchell will not be fazed. He is very proud that:
“Australia is the world’s largest supplier of coal, uranium, gas.” He goes on to say we should have cheaper energy, but we “have exported power intensive manufacturing industry jobs to Asia since the introduction of the Renewable Energy Target by the then PM John Howard in 2001.”
And “the heavily subsidised renewables quickly began distorting the electricity market”:
Bob Brown refused to support Rudd; Gillard “knifed” Rudd and negotiated with the Greens to make a tax which ‘she had promised not to introduce.” [See how some things just stick in some reporting. Remember that Peta Credlin has admitted that Gillard’s “tax” was not a tax.] Ross Garnaut’s two reports to Gillard and Rudd, says Mitchell:
“… made it clear a move to renewables would take decades. Gas, 45% less carbon intensive than coal, could smooth the transmission…
“All this came to a rapid expansion in gas exports without domestic gas reservation policy to ensure cheap gas here.”
Morrison bit the bullet, says Mitchell, to build a gas plant in the Hunter to replace Liddell if no industry commits to do it before April. “Given the Californian and SA examples, Morrison’s caution looks prudent.” Yes, of course, but is it?
“Yet many in Labor,” he says, “seem to have learnt little from its defeat in resources seats at the last election.”
What Labor has learnt is how a wealthy mining magnate can trawl for preferences and interfere in an election with massive spending involving Murdoch media. What the resources seats have learnt is not clear. One can only wonder what the miners tell their children if they ask about climate change. Adani, for example, is operating at a lower level than anticipated and is at the same time making renewables. India will not import coal after 2023-4. Japan will “retire its fleet of [about 100] old, inefficient coal-fired generation by 2030 (theconversation.com, 28/8/2020). In China, there is talk of more coal-powered stations. “This is despite significant overcapacity in the sector, with more than half of coal-power firms already loss-making and with typical plants running at less than 50% of their capacity… with a target to peak its CO2 emissions no later than 2030.” (carbonbrief.org, “Will China build hundreds of new coal plants in the 2020s?” 24/3/2020).
“The world is not walking away from coal,” says Mitchell. And so Mitchell himself and Greg Sheridan have been saying that Australia could walk away from the Paris Accord, as Trump has done. Tony Abbott actually signed Australia up to the Paris Accord with a pledge of 26-28% carbon reduction – upon which he later reneged from the back bench.
“Much reporting about coal is wrong,” says Mitchell:
“… This raises another favoured Morrison option: carbon capture and storage.” And this is necessary “because emissions would always continue… Finkel said no one was talking about zero emissions but rather ‘zero net emissions’. In other words, business as usual, with emissions buried in the ground. Good luck with that. Just sweep it under the carpet.
“… Morrison today confronts a green lobby wanting zero emissions now, even though the technology does not yet exist outside nuclear,” says Mitchell. “Fear on the right will say Australia should quit Paris, nor admit the popularity of renewables with voters…
“In the face of this, Morrison has reached a pragmatic solution.”
But, of course, a Coalition “pragmatic solution” does not necessarily mean a scientifically sound solution. Scientists have been warning the governments of the world for decades about climate change. The evidence of its continuing impact is all around us. And only now the Coalition is putting coal aside somewhat and linking gas with renewables as if they had invented it themselves. Mitchell said much reporting about coal is wrong. Remember how renewables were ridiculed by the Coalition, and now the Coalition is agreeing to a marriage of renewables with sacred gas.
Nick Cater also had something to say about gas in his article “Gas is fracking hell to protesters” (The Australian, 20/10/2020):
“In fact, the traditional owners of the sparsely populated land have given their blessing to this and other projects. Under the agreements painstakingly brokered by the Northern Land Council, they will receive a percentage of revenue.”
However, GetUp! is asking for a “weekly contribution to establish a Solidarity Fund to support Traditional Owners in their fight against fracking” in the Beetaloo Basin 600 kms south of Darwin. The promise of fracking, according to Cater, is that Darwin will become an expanding metropolis.
Fracking has made great strides in its technology, says Cater: slick water, water and sand and small quantities of household chemicals to open microscopic cracks, ability to drill around corners for several kilometres, and technology to transport liquid gas economically.
The skeletal, tiny quantities of chemicals used in extraction as described by Cater, along with transport of large quantities of gas overseas, seem incompatible with the details given in the Wikipedia “Natural Gas” information (see above).
Cater is very confident that “Beetaloo by rights, should be the green movement’s Waterloo, the moment when the progress it has been trying to halt tramples it underfoot.” The end of the Greens? Wishful thinking.
“… the science behind fracking is well established – a three year CSIRO study – no impact on air or water quality – standard water treatment techniques reduce levels of geogenic chemicals, within acceptable limits – water recovered to its pre-fractured state within 40 days.”
However, on the abc.net.au site “CSIRO fracking research ‘doesn’t pass the pub test’, expert says” by George Roberts, the CSIRO research is under scrutiny.
“The research was conducted by the Gas Industry Social and Economic Research Alliance (GISERA), which is a joint research venture that includes the CSIRO and major gas companies… in the Surat Basin, Queensland.
“An environmental scientist from Queensland’s Griffith University, Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe, said that the sample size ‘doesn’t pass the pub test’.
“Six [wells] is just too small a sample out of 19,000 wells to have any confidence in the results,” Professor Lowe said.
“The second and more problem is that the wells weren’t chosen randomly; they were chosen by the industry and the industry has a vested interest in looking good.
“Australian Institute spokesman said it was not representative of CSG in Queensland … What we’ve got is a situation where the gas industry is funding and overseeing research and then that research is being used to influence decisions made at all levels of government.”
Cater also seems to think Indigenous people will gain, from mining, “a percentage of revenue.” How much is not clear. Mining can be a profitable occupation, although the number of people actually employed in mining is not large.
In “Quarterly Essay” #79 Judith Brett replies to correspondents to her “Quarterly Essay” #78 entitled “The Coal Curse: Resources, Climate and Australia’s future.” Having written about Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, she says this:
“Likely there will be changes to Western Australia’s heritage legislation, and mining companies will be more careful in their consultations, but there will be no fundamental shift in the power imbalance between Indigenous owners and miners, nor between Indigenous understandings of the land as sentient and imbued with ancestral power and settler capitalism’s view of it as a resource for economic exploitation.”
She goes on to quote from Dr Kathryn Pryzwolnik, speaking at the Senate inquiry about another group of Indigenous Pilbara owners:
“‘Within two generations, Eastern Guruma people have seen their country change from a remote place teeming with wildlife, fresh water and unbroken sacred narratives that networked through the Pilbara, to a heavily industrialised hub, now dissected by railways, dry and devoid of animals. Ring-fencing sacred sites won’t restore the Eastern Guruma people’s country.”
In Chapter 12, “The State of the Reef II”, in her book “The Carbon Club” (A & U, 2020), Marian Wilkinson discusses the Curtis Island project opposite Gladstone Port, Queensland, 2010-2013. Following is a condensation of pp205-219 from this chapter.
“Before the election of 2010, on Environment Minister Peter Garrett’s desk was a proposal for the Curtis Island project which was a $16bn LNG plant proposal by Santos and foreign partners and a $15bn proposal by British Gas (just two of four LNG plants including Origin with partner Conoco Phillips, and Shell with a Chinese partner).
Queensland’s Labor government backed the project and had signed most of the state approvals.
Garrett was not sure about the proposal at Gladstone, especially with regard to largescale dredging near the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The Gladstone Ports Corporation had planned to move up to 42m cubic metres of dredge spoil to be retained behind an 8-kilometre wall opposite the island in Gladstone Harbour.
Doubts had already been expressed by the Chairman of the Reef’s Marine Park Authority.
In federal cabinet, Wayne Swan, Martin Ferguson and Tony Burke, Gillard’s new Environment minister, supported it. The government informed the World Heritage Committee in Paris only after a press conference revealed the plan.
There was already a big coal port export terminal and a nearby alumina refinery. But the dredging could have serious environmental consequences. Burke imposed many new environmental regulations to reassure the GBRMPA.
May 2011, Julia Gillard and Anna Bligh, Queensland’s Labor premier, launched the first LNG plant construction site. They spoke of jobs and a ‘new gas age’. Bligh said: “Gas is a cleaner and lower emissions fuel than coal and it will be an important part of the region’s transition to clean energy.”
But exporting gas increased overall energy consumption and would not bring down global emissions – slow it at best. Gas prices soared and liquefying gas increased emissions in Australia.
The WHC was more worried about the dredging. Soon after the dredging commenced, fish and other marine creatures showed signs of stress and infection. Some officials blamed recent floods. A WHC investigation questioned the management of the Reef and in June 2012 considered putting the Reef on the ‘in danger’ list.
Labor lost the state election in March 2012, won by Campbell Newman, who said: “We are in the coal business. If you want decent hospitals, schools and police on the beat, we all need to understand that.”
The fossil fuels industry was powering on. No one seemed to seriously question the idea that Australia could export fossil fuels for decades to come. A high priority was given to coal mining in the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland. But we would need bigger ports near the Great Barrier Reef to ship the fossil fuels.
In 2013 a WHC report was clear that further warming would be catastrophic for the Reef.
The major parties wanted Australia to be the major exporter of coal and gas. But there was a growing resistance to the carbon economy, including from the coral reef expert Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, branded an “alarmist” for reporting the climate threat to the Reef.
Marian Wilkinson’s chapter 12 is important for understanding why critics knew what was wrong with Morrison’s cooking with gas. There is no indication about how long Morrison thinks Australia can sustain “cooking with gas”. Critics have come to understand that climate change is real; it is a scientific matter, not just a matter of “politics”. It is being accepted more and more by some 80% of the population in polls.
Besides that, the experience of Labor, as depicted in that chapter 12, shows us some of the concerns and decisions made in the time of Labor’s last federal term in office. Labor supported, for example, the Curtis Island project, although there was some uncertainty, despite their strong green legislation attempting to ensure success. There was uncertainty about the industrial growth around Gladstone harbour, the dredging in the Harbour and the threat of dumped dredging in the Great Barrier Reef. Dredging created terrible disfiguring effects on fish and other marine creatures in the Harbour. The World Heritage Committee threatened to put the Reef on the “in danger list”. Exporting more from Gladstone would need enlargement of the Harbour and more dredging. The election of the Campbell LNP state government promoted coal even more as a necessary commodity – and now gas as well, its exportation adding to energy costs in Australia.
In chapter 13 of the same book, Wilkinson shows how Tony Abbott, having gained power in part by an attack on Gillard’s “carbon tax” which was not a tax, set about destroying all institutes or ministries which had anything to with climate change, which he described as ‘crap’. He also appeased the WHC by promising not to dump dredgings in the Reef Marine Park and to sign up for a low emissions target of 26-28% at the Paris Agreement, an agreement he reneged on when he was banished to the back bench.
More recently, the Paris Agreement has implications for Australia. Wilkinson explains in her book “The Carbon Club” (p265):
“For Australia the implications of the Paris Agreement were profound. It sent a signal that coal-fired power was on the way out…
“For Australia’s carbon-intensive economy and its lucrative coal export business, this was the fork in the road. If the Paris Agreement held, state and federal governments would need to step up plans to retrain or retire thousands of workers in coal-fired power plants. It meant transforming Australia’s energy market. It meant shrinking thermal coal exports and finding new jobs for miners if there was going to be a just transition. It meant transforming greenhouse-gas-intensive industries like aluminium, steel and cement. It meant setting serious vehicle emission standards, switching to electric vehicles, and scaling back emissions from liquefied natural gas and livestock production.
Australia would also have to bump up its weak 2030 target of 26-28% cut in emissions.”
So, what has Angus Taylor presented as a “roadmap” to address these matters?
“Energy Minister Angus Taylor to reveal Australia’s new ‘roadmap’ to guide $18bn of Commonwealth investment towards five priority technologies: hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, soil carbon, storage options and ‘low carbon’ steel and aluminium production.”
“Australia can’t and shouldn’t damage its economy to reduce emissions… Emerging and enabling technologies will be included in the mandates of our technological investment agencies…Over time they may become priorities for us or they may drop off altogether.” (Melissa Clarke, abc.net.au. 21/9/2020, updated 23/9/2020)
It is a vague and uncoordinated mishmash, with gaps and anomalies and unexplained costs in need of clarification.
Proven technologies, such as solar “are not the focus of the roadmap,” said Taylor. But these technologies, solar and wind, are exactly what need to be developed and organised into a coherent grid or series of regional grids through transmission. There is clearly no real support for renewables in Taylor’s roadmap. Nor is merely leaving it all to the market or industry the answer. (See Mark Diesendorf, the conversation.com, 23/9/2020, “Angus Taylor’s technology roadmap is fundamentally flawed”).
Perhaps we could even make Australia an energy superpower. (See Roger Dargaville, theconversation.com, 5/12/2018, “Making Australia a renewable energy exporting super power”).
The present Federal Government is not looking far or wide enough to really grapple with the energy scene. It is far too attached to its conservative, ideological roadblock from the past. It is a real danger for the health of our economy, the people, and, ultimately, the world.
Gas might be used as a transmission to a net carbon-free zone. But we must wonder how long we can keep burning carbon. The clock is ticking and we have been procrastinating. Time for bipartisan targeted action is needed yesterday. Time to face the reality of climate change with action. No point cooking the world with gas. We need a plan with a time frame of the kind other countries are offering. We are all in this together in the pandemic, and we are as well with regard to climate change. There is no exceptionalism or privilege allowed. There is no Planet B.
Fortunately, States are taking the initiative and setting the example for the Federal Government.
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