Is natural gas really nothing more than a transition energy?

Everybody's talking about natural gas — and for good reason. It is plentiful, emits fewer greenhouse gases than other fossil fuels and is an ally in the future growth of renewables. But more work needs to be done to improve public acceptance, a key point considering its potential to be more than just a transition energy. That's one reason Total conducted an impartial comparative study on the carbon impact of natural gas.

Natural gas, a growth energy

Natural gas has a bright future. Its abundant reserves are estimated at more than 1 trillion barrels of oil equivalent globally, or 187.1 trillion cubic meters1. Emitting less carbon than other fossil fuels, its place in the future global energy mix is expected to erode coal's. Demand is growing by roughly 2 percent a year2, led mainly by Asia3, a trend expected to propel natural gas to the number two spot in the global energy mix in 2035. For its part, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects global demand for natural gas to grow 50 percent by 2040 due to declining coal use, especially for power generation.

Every scenario imagined by the IEA has natural gas's share in the global energy mix continuing to rise, alongside renewables. Its promising future is confirmed by Fatih Birol, the IEA's executive director, who says: "We see clear winners for the next 25 years — natural gas but especially wind and solar — replacing the champion of the previous 25 years, coal."

How do you analyze the life cycle of a gas molecule? A meeting in Montreal with experts from CIRAIG, the International Reference Centre for the Life Cycle of Products, Processes and Services.

Toward multiple uses

Valérie Quiniou, vice president, climate and energy at Total, points out that natural gas "enjoys solid advantages in this face-off. It emits only half as much carbon in power generation as its competitor, coal, and is more flexible than coal or nuclear power in dealing with renewables' intermittence." That makes it a partner of choice in supporting the energy transition the world needs to achieve the COP21 agreement's target of maintaining the temperature rise at or below 2 degrees Celsius.

But relegating natural gas "solely" to the status of a transition energy would be a mistake. "We can use natural gas in a number of different ways," says Valérie Quiniou. "Supplying energy to industry, heating buildings and even transporting people and goods are areas Total is working on. We're also looking at applications unrelated to electrification and regions in which natural gas has advantages over other energy sources. We want to increase natural gas to 60 percent of Total's hydrocarbon mix by 2035 and operate across the value chain, from exploration and production to end-customer distribution. To do that, we know that many uses still need to be invented."

The challenge of community acceptance

So the pieces on the chessboard of the future global energy mix are starting to fall into place. First is oil, irreplaceable in petrochemical production and transportation, especially air transport. It is followed by renewables, increasingly competitive for local developments that promote regional energy independence. Next up is natural gas, which is pushing coal out of power plants and finding new applications. Last is coal, whose role is dwindling. Simple. Almost too simple for Total's vice president, climate and energy, who points to several factors that could temper those predictions. First for coal, whose "future is tough to map out," because for some countries in which it is the primary energy resource, climate arguments alone won't be sufficient to tip the scales. Or because still other countries have already deployed coal solutions with improved thermal efficiency. Meanwhile, natural gas still needs to gain acceptance by the public, which doesn't always understand how oil and gas giants can weigh in on topics such as CCUS4 (carbon capture, utilization and storage) or carbon pricing. Carbon pricing alone "could help further the transition by taxing the highest-carbon energies." Mistrust and limited knowledge appear to set the tone for the debate. Prompting Valérie Quiniou to advocate "more education about the fact that the energy transition won't happen overnight" and to call for "more joint work by governments, regions, civil society, NGOs and the private sector. Because the energy transition affects everyone."

What about shale gas?

If there's a subject on which public opinion is stalemated, especially in Europe, it's the development of unconventional gas such as shale gas. The report of the U.S. nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) on the North American market is unequivocal: there are too many leaks. But there are technologies and equipment that can reduce leaks. "Could it be that shale gas was developed in the United States too quickly?," suggests Valérie Quiniou. "For Total, it's important to stress that each investment decision is based on a risk analysis table that includes a large number of issues related directly to climate. We're not ruling out the possibility of shale developments, but we'll make sure that we manage all the downsides, by working in an open way with EDF and UN Environment." No topic is off limits.

Impartial facts and figures to inform the discussion

In this jockeying for position among governments, NGOs open to dialogue, oil and gas companies, notably through the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), and civil society more broadly, there is a serious need for objective, quantified information. It is one reason Total commissioned CIRAIG5 to conduct a comparative life cycle assessment — LCA6 — of coal and gas in the fall of 2016, to determine exactly what the carbon impact of the two energies used in power plants is. "We wanted to have reliable, verifiable selling points to talk about gas and, in fact, to convince people that what we're doing is sound," says Valérie Quiniou. The study, conducted by a recognized center of expertise with a panel of independent experts, is available to all.

Its findings are clear: The most state-of-the-art coal-fired power plants still emit more carbon than less state-of-the-art gas-fired plants. The difference is around 50 percent. "We managed to quantify what started out as a hunch," says Valérie Quiniou. "We're going to publish the results in our Climate Report and our contribution to the OGCI and try to broaden it to all gas distribution channels in the world."

Although CIRAIG's study leaves no room for doubt or interpretation about comparative carbon emissions, a close watch still needs to be kept on certain areas. "Methane emissions at production sites are something we continue to work on. We've also just signed a memorandum of understanding with EDF and UN Environment to conduct a global analysis of all existing research in the field. The goal is to identify where improvements can be made by region and type of production unit. The OGCI's members will also contribute by quantifying and checking this future study," says the vice president from Total.

"The era of pitting players or energies against one another is over," says Valérie Quiniou in conclusion. "It's no longer an either/or issue. Fossil fuels and renewable energies, NGOs and oil and gas companies, regulations and public opinion — it's time to work together constructively to effect the energy transition the world needs. This will also require more energy efficiency — and conservation — on the part of consumers and users, coupled with more diverse production sources. We're determined to play our role and live up to our responsibilities."

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1 End-2014. Source: Planète Énergies.

2 1.7% in 2015.

3 In 2015, Iran (+6.2%) and China (+4.7%) posted the highest growth in consumption.

4 Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage.

5 Centre international de référence sur le cycle de vie des produits, procédés et services (International Reference Centre for the Life Cycle of Products, Processes and Services).

6 Life Cycle Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Natural Gas and Coal in Different Geographical Contexts.

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