The NPC studies out this week and the work left undone

Two high profile studies released this week by the National Petroleum Council paint a portrait of an industry asserting a positive role in the energy transition but struggling to act on what good science demands of it.

The studies — one on natural gas, the other on hydrogen — were produced at the request of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who is looking to better understand how and under what circumstances those resources can play a constructive role in the energy transition, a strategic and economic imperative for the United States.

Created by President Harry Truman to advise the executive branch on critical energy issues, the NPC has provided successive administrations with analysis-backed recommendations on how to structure and manage U.S energy policy to advance the national interest.

Historically dominated by oil and gas producers, the NPC has sought in recent years to broaden its perspective by adding a range of civil society members. To the NPC’s credit, both the industry and the country are better off as a result.

As one of the non-industry voices on the council, we at EDF had substantial opportunity to provide data, peer-reviewed scientific research and advice across the numerous work groups producing the studies, and we actively participated in the conversations as energy executives and their staff hashed out NPC’s recommendations.

Mixed result shows need for broader perspective

Through the process, we saw genuine engagement on several tough questions and encouraging progress on some key issues but in the end, the NPC demonstrates that it remains an industry-centric forum. The studies call for permitting reforms, billions in taxpayer support for natural gas-related infrastructure and expanded hydrogen incentives.

Despite offering up a familiar industry wish list, however, not everything in them should be reflexively rejected by champions of an accelerated energy transition and a net-zero carbon energy future.

For example, that permitting has become a long and torturous process across the United States, which slows the development of needed clean energy infrastructure as surely as it stymies bad, pollution-intensive projects. Something must be done. But reform cannot come at the expense of sound science or community inclusion, public health or local ecosystems.

That requires a far more diverse set of perspectives and participants at the table. We are confident that Secretary Granholm recognizes this and will take NPC findings and recommendations on this point with a healthy dose of salt.

What’s next is what counts

Much of what the natural gas report has to say on the imperative to reduce oil and gas methane pollution is constructive. There are any number of secondary and tertiary points in the text and supporting analysis we can and do quibble with. But at this point, our concern is not with the report, but what happens next.

Through the Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management, the administration has taken meaningful steps to regulate and reduce oil and gas methane pollution.  Not coincidentally, analysis underpinning both the natural gas and hydrogen NPC studies assume significant reductions in oil and gas methane pollution between now and 2030, in part due to swift implementation of those requirements. And further federal protections are in the works as the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration moves to finalize standards to reduce pipeline methane leaks.

Yet there is strong evidence that oil and gas trade associations are gearing up to challenge these substantive and essential federal regulations in court. Oil state attorneys general have already filed suit, and at least one major oil and gas company — Continental Resources — has joined them. Will anyone be next?

Similarly, Secretary Granholm asked NPC to advise on how to reduce the climate footprint of natural gas. Apart from reductions in methane pollution, the industry’s answer as reflected by the NPC is carbon capture utilization and storage. Here, there are assumptions and assertions that give us pause.

In particular, efforts to relieve companies of liability for carbon dioxide disposal in Louisiana and other states don’t inspire confidence that industry believes its own rhetoric that CCUS is effective, safe and permanent.

Ignoring a critical question

The NPC natural gas study also fails to address a critical question: whether and to what degree gas has any role to play in the energy transition going forward.

The report leads with the finding that “…[a]bundant, affordable natural gas is the largest source of primary energy production in the United States and will continue to play a crucial role in energy security and an important role in economic security beyond 2050 under all Energy Information Agency scenarios.”  But the EIA does not currently offer a scenario modeling a net-zero energy economy by 2050, much less anything fully compliant with the Paris Agreement (to which the U.S remains a party).

NPC risks misleading the reader here with a finding that essentially says gas plays a leading role in a future where climate is no issue. But climate is an issue. Why else would Secretary Granholm have asked whether and how the GHG footprint of natural gas could be reduced?

Regrettably, the study’s steering committee opted not to address emissions associated with the use of natural gas or any other issue associated with natural gas demand.

Hydrogen challenges

It is increasingly understood that the accelerated development and deployment of zero carbon electricity is the cleanest and most efficient way to meet most of our nation’s future energy needs. Yet even the most optimistic scenarios identify the need for net-zero carbon molecules to do the work zero carbon electrons can’t do by themselves.

The need to meet national energy needs consistent with a net-zero energy economy by 2050 is the reason Secretary Granholm requested a study on hydrogen. The NPC offers analysis, findings and recommendations for whether, when and how hydrogen can play this role.

The study is complex, with findings and recommendations based on analysis performed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative. As with any analytical exercise, the results are only as good as the data and assumptions. One assumption we agree with is that when hydrogen is derived from natural gas, methane emissions associated with the production and transportation of that gas need to be fully controlled.

However, the NPC hydrogen report and underlying analysis fall short on assessing the impact of hydrogen itself on the climate.

Hydrogen is a small molecule, difficult to contain. It is known to easily leak into the atmosphere throughout the value chain. And, in some cases, industrial processes vent hydrogen by design.

Hydrogen in the atmosphere behaves differently than CO2. While it doesn’t trap heat itself, the roughly 30% of hydrogen emissions not taken up by microbial activity in soils leads to a chain of chemical reactions in the atmosphere that increase the amounts of potent short-lived GHGs (methane, ground level ozone and upper atmosphere water vapor).

A peer-reviewed science paper published this past summer concludes hydrogen has 12 times the warming power of CO2 pound for pound over 100 years after release. It’s even more powerful in the first 20 years, when it packs more than 35 times the climate warming of CO2.

Understanding when, where and how hydrogen can play a constructive role in advancing the energy transition begins with having a complete understanding of losses across the hydrogen supply chain and full portfolio of potential uses and fully incorporating this information into the life cycle analysis used to assess hydrogen relative to alternatives.

MIT’s analysis fails to do this, excluding hydrogen emissions from its analysis and deferring climate impacts to sidebar discussions. Secretary Granholm would do well to heed NPC’s own recommendation and ask for a follow-up report specifically addressing this critical issue.

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