by Rosemary Penwarden

"Flaring at Mangahewa D, Todd Energy Gas plant, Taranaki" photo by Fiona Clark

“Flaring at Mangahewa D, Todd Energy Gas plant, Taranaki” photo by Fiona Clark

The tobacco industry got nervous when people began to question the health impacts of cigarettes in the 1950s. In response, their marketers invented the filter-tipped cigarette, to screen out tar and nicotine and make the cigarette “safer”. The filters did not stop cancer; people just dragged harder or smoked more to get their nicotine fix, and filter-tipped cigarettes have dominated the market ever since.

Today’s fossil fuel industry is like the nervous tobacco industry of the 1950s. They know the burning of coal, oil and gas is speedily nudging our global thermometer to two degrees. Like their tobacco industry pals they have lied, cheated and even paid the same marketers to confuse us into ignoring the warning signs, continue with our fossil fuel addiction and allow them to make more profits.

And Fonterra has it bad. As the second largest user of coal in the country, Fonterra’s addiction keeps New Zealand’s fossil fuel industry thriving.

The fossil fuel spin doctors are marketing gas as the ‘clean’ alternative to dirty coal. Gas is the bridge to a renewable future. Gas provides ‘diversity’ in our forward-looking energy arsenal, according to Energy Minister Simon Bridges.

Gas: the filter-tipped cigarette of fossil fuel industry.

Most of Fonterra’s North Island milk drying plants are gas-fired, and their new plant at Pahiatua and recent expansion at Lichfield will use more. While the rest of us go electric, ride our bikes and turn off the lights Fonterra just keeps pumping it out, helping keep New Zealanders among the highest emitters per capita of greenhouse gases in the world.

But two problems present themselves to the proponents of coal, oil and gas. The first: a growing awareness, translating into action against fossil fuel expansion worldwide and a fast expanding global divestment movement. The second: facts.

As the Green Party explained in their campaign to prevent Nova Energy’s plans for new, fossil fuelled electricity in the Waikato, “Gas ain’t Green”. True, gas emits around half as much carbon dioxide as coal. This is useful for the oil companies who can virtuously call for a worldwide price on carbon to help wipe out that dirty old coal, give oil and gas the competitive advantage and allow them to continue plugging their filter-tipped climate-destroying product; ‘clean’ natural gas.

And burning gas emits about 75 per cent as much carbon dioxide as crude oil, slowing the climate damage by one year in every four.

But carbon dioxide emissions are only part of the gas problem. Natural gas only emits carbon dioxide after it is burned. Before it’s burned it is mostly methane, and methane leaks. Right now methane appears to be playing a big and immediate part in destroying our climate.

The industry’s ‘Gas is Green’ Iogo comes at a really bad time. At current rates we’ll have two degrees’ worth of human-caused greenhouse gases in our atmosphere as soon as the 2030s. Just when the next twenty years really matter, we’re sending more and more of the most potent greenhouse gas we can get our hands on into the rapidly warming atmosphere.

Methane is 86 times more potent than CO2 over a twenty year period. Yes, it stays in the atmosphere for less time, but it’s the short term that counts if we are to avoid reaching the global warming tipping point described by Dr James Hansen and others, where feedback effects like arctic methane release will just keep the temperature going up irretrievably. Result? Ocean fish stock collapse, Amazon jungle die-off, many metres of sea level rise and more.

The US fracking revolution is not a bridge to clean energy. New research from Harvard shows that between 2002 and 2014 methane leakage from gas production and delivery in the US rose by up to 30%. Gas is delaying the urgent deployment of resources into renewable technologies, leaking dangerous methane into the atmosphere and, scientists confirm, may actually be exacerbating the climate problem.

Let’s not make the same mistake in Aotearoa. While the atmosphere has no borders we can at least learn from the mistakes made in the US and not add to them. There are 2,600 kilometres of high-pressure natural gas transmission pipelines in the North Island (none in the south), including the 307 km Maui pipeline that carries 78% of all of New Zealand’s natural gas. There are also many low pressure pipelines distributing gas to households and businesses like Fonterra. We don’t measure methane leakage here, but take a trip through back country Taranaki and sniff the air; it ain’t all cow shit out there.

Many studies besides the Harvard one find that even a very small amount of methane leakage from gas wells and transport systems can have a large climate impact — enough to cancel out any benefit of switching from coal to gas for a very long time.

Fonterra is getting a bad rap over coal. If they try to “green” up their image by switching to even more gas, we will be ready. We don’t buy filter-tipped.

Fonterra: don’t go there. Coal has to go but Gas ain’t Green.