Up on the fourth floor of Westin Copley Place this week, hundreds of natural gas representatives mingled among glossy posters and tables littered with branded baseball hats and Oreos. Among the niceties and exchanges of business cards it became quickly clear — the climate crisis is very much on people’s minds. Another thing became clear, too. The solution, as they see it, is more gas.
“Additional natural gas pipelines are the answer to many of the questions we face today,” Amy Andryszak, chief executive of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, told a panel audience Tuesday.
It was the 27th annual gathering of the Northeast LDC Gas Forum — nicknamed the “Best Deal-Making Conference” in the industry, according to the organizers, and seemingly as good a place as any to get the gas industry’s view of the climate crisis as it is lived every day in the executive suites, field sites, and maintenance trucks of the scores of companies that operate in New England.
A slide presented by the pipeline company Enbridge at the conference:
Elsewhere in the world, on this very day, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued the latest of his increasingly desperate pleas for world action, saying that the planet is headed toward climate chaos and that “new funding for fossil fuel exploration and production infrastructure is delusional.”
But the message on the convention floor was that the outside world just doesn’t understand.
In panels and presentations, industry representatives told the story of an industry in the cross-hairs, trying to solve the climate problem but getting interference from overly ambitious regulators, activist shareholders who want to see them slash emissions, and climate advocates and policy makers pushing to get off of fossil fuels.
“I don’t call the people who oppose us the ‘environmentalists,’ ” Dena Wiggins, president and CEO of the Natural Gas Supply Association, said to the hundreds of men and women who had come to hear a panel discussion called “Navigating the Winding Road of Policy and Regulatory Initiatives on the Way to Energy Transition.” “I consider myself, in many ways, an environmentalist. I happen to support the fossil fuel industry, natural gas, natural gas pipelines, but I think you can do both,” Wiggins said.
“The opposition” is actively pushing a climate agenda in regulatory processes, said Andryszak, of the natural gas association, who was also on the panel. She urged people in the audience to push back as well. “We have to remind policy makers that they are still grounded in natural gas as a foundational fuel,” she said.
What’s more, explained several of the presenters throughout the day, natural gas could play a key role long past 2050, the date by which the world is supposed to have net-zero carbon emissions.
A slide presented by the gas trader Macquarie Group at the conference:
“I hear a lot about how we’re transitioning to an all-electric energy market,” said Jeff Baker, director of process technology for CB&I, a Texas-based engineering and procurement company. “What I’ve heard so many times here just reinforces that natural gas is going to be here for a long, long time. It’s not going to be done in 2050, as many people speculate or wish for. It’s really the energy that’s going to maintain a green environment for the future.”
For decades, the natural gas industry has promoted the idea that a switch from dirtier fossil fuels — especially coal — to natural gas would result in lower carbon emissions. When combusted in a new, efficient natural gas power plant, natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less CO2 than a typical new coal plant, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. But gas is still a fossil fuel that emits unsustainable amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Recent studies have also shown that leaks of methane — the main component of natural gas — happen with such frequency that they, alone, are a significant climate pollutant.
Nowhere was the tension felt by the industry more clear than in the framing of a panel called “Electrification — Not So Fast!”
Electrification — a plan for powering most vehicles and homes with energy from a clean electrical grid — is the path to net zero that clean energy advocates and many policy makers in Massachusetts and around the world generally agree is the best and most cost-effective. But the gas industry is pushing back hard, proposing its own scenarios, which generally involve expanding gas production and gas infrastructure, eventually replacing what flows through pipes with something less carbon-intensive.
A problem with those plans, many experts say, is that low-carbon and zero-carbon fuels are still new technologies that are expected to be low in supply, meaning they will need to be conserved for the parts of the economy that are the hardest to electrify, like steel production or heavy-duty transportation.
At this panel, though, and at others throughout the conference, the message was to find a way to replace at least a portion of what flows through the pipes, while growing the footprint of natural gas infrastructure.
Blair Hastey, from the business development team at Enbridge, said a future gas product that might meet the criteria for net-zero could include a significant amount of natural gas. That vision, which Hastey said would “provide greater reliability, security, and affordability than electrification” calls for a blend of natural gas and “negative emission” fuels — like those derived from the methane emitted by landfills, which in theory would reduce an existing climate threat.
In figuring out how to cut the emissions intensity of its product — and appease shareholders who want companies to respond to the climate crisis — the natural gas industry is pushing ahead on several fronts. The first, and perhaps newest, is something called “responsibly sourced gas,” or RSG. RSG is natural gas that has been certified by a third party to have met certain criteria, from water impacts to methane emissions monitoring.
Critics say the certification is tantamount to greenwashing, offering companies a stamp of approval for doing things it should already be doing, like plugging leaks. But advocates of RSG — of which there were many at the Boston conference — say it offers the industry a climate-friendlier path forward, which can appease shareholders and maybe help bring new infrastructure to the Northeast.
“Decarbonization begins with real data,” said Steve Wilson, a market development adviser at Project Canary, which sells methane leak monitoring technology and certifies gas as RSG. “You can’t get to net-zero without real data.”
Between the advancements along these fronts, record rates of gas extraction in some parts of the country, and booming exports to Europe amid the Ukraine crisis, said Dan Diefenbach of BHE GT&S, “it is an exciting time to be in the natural gas industry.”