Why is gas bad for climate change and energy prices?

30.06.20 By

So, you’ve got questions about gas. Here are the top things to know (but keep reading for more detail):

What is gas?

Gas is a fossil fuel, mostly made up of methane. Methane is the second-most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and a key driver of climate change. Using gas for energy creates greenhouse gas pollution, driving climate change in three ways:

The term, ‘fugitive emissions’ is used to describe those emissions from gas that occur before it is used productively. This is a huge source of emissions during gas production. These are emissions of greenhouse gas that occur during the extraction, processing and transport of gas (they’re called fugitive emissions because they don’t come directly from burning gas).

Fugitive emissions in Australia have risen 46% since 2005. There are four different types of fugitive emission: 

The reliance on company-compiled data relating to the rates of venting and flaring, along with the failure to appropriately measure leaks and migratory emissions, mean that fugitive emissions from gas are routinely underestimated. New tracking technology that measures gas emissions globally shows that gas production releases far more dangerous greenhouse gas emissions than officially measured. This matches what is seen in the atmosphere, with methane levels being far higher than what is officially counted.

When fugitive emissions are considered alongside the immense quantities of fossil fuel-based energy used by the gas industry to liquefy gas for export, the reality is that gas is often no better for the climate than coal.

Why is everyone suddenly talking about gas?

You may have heard gas being talked about a lot recently. That’s because the Federal Government has promoted the idea of a ‘gas-led recovery’ to lead us out of the economic downturn.

But experts and analysts say the high cost of producing Australian gas, combined with a global drop in oil and gas prices, means gas just doesn’t make sense as an option for economic stimulus. When you add in the fact that gas is fueling climate change, it means it’s a recovery option the Australian economy and the climate can’t afford.

How does gas compare to renewable energy? 

After 30 years of inaction on climate change from successive Australian governments, there is no room to develop further fossil fuel infrastructure. The rapid development of battery storage technology (the price of batteries has fallen by an average of 20% per year) makes renewables backed by batteries a cheaper, cleaner option than developing more gas-fired generators as we shift from coal-fired power.

Australia is the sunniest and windiest inhabited continent on the planet. Australia has everything it needs to make deep, enduring and immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. By refusing to step up to the immense opportunities a zero-carbon economy offers, Australia is being left behind by countries with fewer renewable resources.

Do we need new gas? 

Nope. New gas is an unnecessary and dangerous step in Australia’s efforts to tackle climate change.

How does gas affect energy prices? 

Australian gas pushes up power prices. We are the largest exporter of LNG, but we’re paying some of the highest prices for gas in the world. Seems strange, right? But, around 70% of the gas extracted in Australia is exported, and the other 30% is split across homes, manufacturing and electricity generation. 

And in fact, domestic gas has tripled in price since the opening up of Queensland coal seam gas fields for export. The cost of gas is the reason electricity prices have been running so high since at least 2016. In contrast, renewable energy, even when backed by storage, is the lowest cost form of new electricity generation and keeps dropping in price each year.

The Federal Government often claims that ‘supply’ is the issue around high domestic gas prices and uses this reason to lobby for establishment of new gas fields and exploration licenses, while failing to regulate the gas export market. Australia’s supply of gas has dramatically increased over the past several years, and so have power prices for Australian consumers. If supply was the answer, this problem would have been solved already.

Gas extraction is dangerous

The gas industry uses the terms ‘conventional’ or ‘unconventional’ to describe gas reservoirs.

Conventional gas is trapped in naturally porous reservoir formations that are capped with rock. When a well is drilled, gas flows to the surface without the need to pump.

Unconventional gas is found in more complex geological formations which limit the ability of gas to be extracted. The term ‘unconventional’ means that extra steps must be taken to extract the gas from underground. This includes fracking, but covers others measures as well, and so not all unconventional gas requires fracking. Three types of unconventional gas are extracted in Australia: coal seam gas, shale gas and tight gas. 

What is fracking?

Fracking is one of the most environmentally damaging ways to extract fossil fuels. It involves forcing massive quantities of sand-bearing water, loaded with chemicals, deep underground. The pressure behind the fluid mix creates new cracks in the rock, which allow the gas to flow more freely to the well.

Fracking uses many dangerous chemicals. These can contaminate local land and water supplies. The identities of the specific chemicals used in a fracking operation are usually kept secret from the communities they affect, and, if something goes wrong, can cause catastrophic damage to local agriculture, bushland and waterways. Potential health problems caused by fracking chemicals include cancer, nervous system damage and respiratory problems. Fracking is a catastrophic risk.