Chart: Is LNG worse for the climate than coal?

Research suggests that liquefied natural gas can have a bigger emissions footprint than coal, undermining LNG’s status as a bridge fuel.”
By Maria Virginia Olano

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Canary Media’s chart of the week translates crucial data about the clean energy transition into a visual format.

Conventional wisdom has long been that it’s better for the planet to burn fossil gas for electricity than it is to burn coal.

But when it comes to liquefied natural gas — the transportable form of fossil gas — that may not be true. New research finds that the life-cycle emissions from LNG are actually worse than those of burning coal and burning gas domestically.

Although coal-to-gas switching has helped reduce emissions from the U.S. power sector over the past couple of decades, those benefits evaporate once the fuel is liquefied and shipped around the world, according to preprint manuscript research from Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University.

Howarth found that LNG’s total emissions are between 24 and 274 percent more than coal’s, depending on how the LNG is transported.

These enormous emissions are due to the high energy requirements for liquefying and transporting the fuel, which become greater when it is transported using older, less efficient tankers. The largest source of emissions in older tankers is methane venting from storage tanks, while more modern tankers can mitigate this by using this boiled-off methane for power. But even in these more efficient scenarios, the primary source of emissions is from the production, processing, storage and transport of fossil gas, the feedstock for LNG.

This carbon footprint is why prominent environmental advocates have been raising the alarm bells about plans to rapidly expand LNG export infrastructure in the U.S., which is already the world’s largest exporter of the fuel.

As of this week, the U.S. appears to be responding to those concerns. On Wednesday, news broke that the Biden administration plans to pause a long-awaited decision on Calcasieu Pass 2 (CP2), a proposed project that would be the largest LNG export terminal in the country, until it could further assess its climate impact. The move would be a first for the Department of Energy, which has greenlit the expansion of LNG infrastructure for the past two administrations.

It would also be, according to climate activist Bill McKibben, the biggest thing a U.S. president has ever done to stand up to the fossil fuel industry.”

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial producer at Canary Media.