February 2022

The ESG perspective: Sustainable natural gas?

Opponents of the European Commission's move to label nuclear energy and natural gas as “green" have accused them of "greenwashing." Let’s dig into the importance of this move and why this is a battle we can’t lose.
Mark Patton / Hydrozonix

Recently, the European Commission moved to label nuclear energy and natural gas as “green.” This move came with great opposition. Let’s dig into the importance of this move and why this is a battle we can’t lose. 

The European Commission’s move was controversial and required them to amend their initial proposal to mandate safe nuclear waste disposal and environmentally protective drilling for natural gas, as well as carbon offsets. There is continued opposition to this move, which opponents label as “greenwashing.” We discussed in my last ESG column how greenwashing and “decarbonization” are terms that are essentially being redefined by oil and gas opponents to mean eliminate the use of oil and gas entirely, but now we see this materialize in real time. 

So, how did we get here? Well, after a brutal winter and an energy reliability problem throughout Europe, it became apparent that renewable energy was unreliable and not sufficient enough to supply the needed energy. Natural gas became the ready-made solution to help make energy production reliable, as well as the next-cleanest alternative that can be implemented immediately. Nuclear, of course, will take some time and planning. So, this move really becomes more about the immediate impact that natural gas will have on energy reliability and cost. 

On the opposition side, there is the push to go completely with wind and solar, and that requires eliminating oil and gas as an option. This agenda is being pushed to “save the planet” and reverse the impacts of climate change, but the opposition isn’t being entirely honest. You see, solar requires carbon and mined silica in blast furnaces operated on coal to make solar panels—a very polluting process—but this is being ignored. Wind requires oil for lubrication, but let’s not discuss this either. Both processes kill wildlife, including endangered species by the thousands, but let’s ignore that as well. Both processes need lithium for batteries, which is mostly mined in underdeveloped countries, creating a tremendous emission impact. Let’s not discuss how many of these underdeveloped countries also use child labor in mining. Alternative energy isn’t entirely clean and has its drawbacks. 

What is the goal? On the surface, it is to reduce man’s impact on the environment or reduce emissions, especially greenhouse gases. Yes, the use of oil and gas creates emissions that we can openly offset with Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), but the opposition wants to call this “greenwashing,” while ignoring the impacts of alternative energy. Therefore, we have to be open and transparent about the goal. It is my belief that the opposition’s goal is to eliminate the use of oil and gas. This is why the European Commission’s move needs to be supported. 

Did you ever think Europe would be more conservative than the United States, when it comes to energy policy? Here in the U.S., there continues to be a push for renewables, while there is also a push to restrict oil and gas—from restrictions on federal lands to outright drilling bans in California to restrictions on shale gas in New York. The hypocrisy is amazing—while both New York and California import foreign oil and gas, they restrict the homegrown product. On the surface, this isn’t about reducing emissions, if you’re importing the same product that you can develop at home with tighter environmental restrictions. 

Now, let’s look at how the EPA defines “renewable natural gas,” whose use they support. This is essentially biogas from landfills, livestock farms, food production facilities, composting operations and so on. Essentially generated by decaying organic matter with man-made energy in most cases. And this type of “renewable gas” is supported as an alternative to well gas. The EPA states, “biogas has been upgraded for use in place of fossil natural gas.” So how is well gas formed? It’s formed by decaying organic matter without a man-made energy input. I would argue that well gas is more sustainable and equally as renewable, but with a lower emission profile than biogas. 

It’s time we take a stand and support the European Commission’s position and adopt their conditions to label natural gas as “green.” This is a battle we cannot lose, because we will be faced with the same problems Europe has faced with energy shortages and reliability issues, let alone the idea that this supports jobs, here in our home country. Then there is the issue of “national security.” 

Not only is defining standards for sustainable natural gas important, but by recognizing it is green and allowing continued drilling and processing of natural gas, it will make us energy-independent. This removes political influences that come with imported gas. More importantly, it allows us to counter Russia’s influence over the world. Russia uses natural gas as a bargaining chip that we had not been able to counter, until we recently lifted the embargo on exports of petroleum products. 

It’s critical that we embrace the push for improving ESG goals and standards as an effort to reduce our impact on the environment, but this also means we push for transparency and against labeling carbon offsets as greenwashing. The transition to natural gas has been the biggest impact we have seen to emissions reduction. Creating “sustainable natural gas” as a standard with offsets is an even further improvement. It is unrealistic to believe we can achieve “net zero” without natural gas, especially when considering a transition to renewables also creates a significant emission impact that no one is considering offsetting. 

I will continue to update you on progress for the sustainable natural gas movement but urge you all to support it. This is important to the future of our country, our industry and to emissions reduction and reliable, low-cost energy.  

About the Authors
Mark Patton
Mark Patton is president of Hydrozonix and has more than 30 years of experience developing water and waste treatment systems for the oil and gas industry. This includes design, permitting and operation of commercial and private treatment systems, both nationally and internationally. He has seven produced water patents and two patents pending. He earned his B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1985.
Related Articles
Connect with World Oil
Connect with World Oil, the upstream industry's most trusted source of forecast data, industry trends, and insights into operational and technological advances.