Oil Giants Back Switch to Natural Gas as Study Tallies Pollution Deaths

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By Bobby Magill

International oil and gas industry groups told Bloomberg Environment they would encourage greater use of natural gas and less reliance on coal after a report linked fossil fuels with millions of premature deaths.

Their comments followed publication this week of a study that found air pollution created by the most greenhouse gas-intensive fossil fuels could kill 153 million people prematurely by 2100.

Cutting carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change, has a side benefit, the study found: Poor air quality caused by burning fossil fuels of all kinds will improve and fewer people will die.

“When you burn fossil fuels, in addition to carbon dioxide, you get a bunch of other pollutants that form ozone—very small particles that can penetrate deep into people’s lungs and cause a variety of illnesses,” including heart disease, respiratory failure, and others, study lead author Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke University and former NASA scientist, told Bloomberg Environment.

“The status quo is not only leading us down the road to [climate] disaster, it’s leaving our air pollution levels really astonishingly high in many parts of the world so that millions of people are dying every year,” Shindell said.

The study, published March 19 in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, was conducted by scientists at Duke University and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The analysis is similar to some of the science underlying the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan showing public health benefits to cutting fossil fuel use, Shindell said.

The EPA, which regulates the air pollution described in the study in the U.S., has proposed under President Donald Trump to repeal the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants as a way to address climate change.

EPA spokesman Robert Daguillard told Bloomberg Environment March 19 that the EPA is referring questions to NASA, which does not regulate air pollution.

120,000 Fewer New York City Deaths

The study estimates that 153 million premature deaths will be avoided over an 80 year period if emissions are cut so that the goal of the Paris Agreement on climate change, to prevent global warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), is met.

That includes 4.4 million premature deaths in Kolkata and 2 million in Mumbai, cities in India that are heavily reliant on coal for electricity.

A switch to cleaner fuels would save 360,000 premature deaths in Tokyo and 120,000 in New York City, where coal power is less common than in developing countries.

“This paper highlights the enormous health benefits of quicker action,” A. R. Ravishankara, an atmospheric science professor at Colorado State University who was not involved in the study, told Bloomberg Environment. “There is much to be gained by not putting off fossil fuel reduction for both climate and health.”

Industry Sees Benefits in Pollution Cuts

Responding to the study, global fossil fuel producers and trade groups said countries should use more natural gas, renewables and carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies as ways to uphold their Paris commitments and reduce fossil fuels’ impact on air quality and public health.

“Gas has a significant role to play in delivering the energy needed to ensure development for all countries, complementing renewables, and delivering a clear climate and clean air benefit, especially when compared to coal,” the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which represents 10 of the world’s largest non-U.S.-based oil companies, told Bloomberg Environment in a statement.

Already, there is a shift toward natural gas for electric power generation in the U.S. because low natural gas prices have hastened the retirement of coal-fired power plants.

China has improved air quality in Beijing because it has switched from coal to gas, but gas shortages there this winter caused many homes to go without heat.

‘Calling on a Coal-to-Gas Switch’

“In those regions that are relying so heavily on coal, we’re calling on a coal-to-gas switch,” Nareg Terzian, spokesman for the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) in Brussels, told Bloomberg Environment. “China is turning to natural gas more and more because it wants to solve its urban air pollution issue.”

But Terzian dismissed the study’s conclusions, calling them “confusing” because IOGP believes reducing air pollution and cutting carbon emissions are unrelated.

The study “can lead someone to read it and think, ‘I can reduce greenhouse gases and it’s going to reduce deaths linked to air pollution.’ That’s not the case,” Terzian said.

The IOGP represents many of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, including Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc and others.

Emissions Cuts ‘Top Priority’ for Industry

Chevron is committed to addressing the risks of climate change, company spokesman Sean Comey told Bloomberg Environment.

“Chevron is taking prudent, practical and cost-effective actions to address potential climate change risks, including managing emissions, testing new technologies and increasing efficiency,” he said.

Shell did not respond to emails requesting comment March 20. Exxon spokesman Scott Silvestri declined to comment on the study March 19.

The American Petroleum Institute said reducing emissions is a “top priority” for the oil and gas industry.

“The combination of natural gas use, cleaner motor fuels and technological innovations are significantly improving air quality in a host of ways previously considered impossible—all while the U.S. leads the world in producing and refining natural gas and oil,” API spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel told Bloomberg Environment.

Negative Emissions Difficult to Achieve

The study focuses on the public health benefits of rapidly cutting fossil fuel use because of what its authors see as a flaw in the models underpinning the Paris Agreement.

The models call for fossil fuel use to be curtailed too slowly to prevent warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius, allowing people to breathe polluted air for longer periods of time, the study says.

The models do that because they assume that by the second half of this century, humanity will be actively sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere on a planetary scale and then storing it somewhere safely forever. Scientists call that a “negative emissions” scenario.

But assumptions about negative emissions rely on thus-far unproven technology and land-use techniques that many scientists believe are unlikely to be deployed widely and quickly enough to have an effect on climate change.

‘A Race Against Time’

The European Academies Sciences Advisory Council concluded in February that the Paris Agreement’s negative emissions scenarios are “overly optimistic” because they rely on “hypothetical” technology. The council said relying on carbon removal technology constitutes a “moral hazard” because it suggests to countries that cutting carbon emissions is less urgent than it really is.

“It is no exaggeration to see responding to the real threats of climate change as a race against time: the longer action is delayed, the more acute and intractable the problem becomes,” the council said in its report.

Shindell said the only reliable way for the globe to meet Paris targets is to cut fossil fuel consumption rapidly, which will save millions of lives.

“Policymakers—I hope that they will start seeing climate policy more consistently as part of larger polices to benefit the well-being of their citizens,” he said.

Request Environment & Energy Report