#EC2019 Part 1: Fossil Fuel Greenwashing Invaded A Climate Solutions Conference

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Friday, September 20th, 2019 was the day a global climate strike occurred, inspired by Greta Thunberg’s barely year-old initiative. Over 4 million kids and their parents and adult supporters marched in 2,500 events globally. I was attending a climate solutions conference, BC Sustainable Energy Association’s Energy Connect 2019, in Vancouver BC, getting angrier and angrier.

It wasn’t the organizers’ fault. The BC Sustainable Energy Association (BC SEA) had a bunch of bitter discussions about allowing FortisBC, which is a natural gas company, to become a primary sponsor of the conference, according to a few people I spoke to on the Board. The people who said, “We need the money” apparently lost to the people who probably said “They’ll use us for greenwashing for the fossil fuel industry.” And Fortis was the only Gold Sponsor of the group. It was offering a lot of money. Well, not really.

“GOLD SPONSOR – $5,000”

Yes, this was a cheap buyout. BC SEA is trying to do good work, and most of the conference was excellent. That it couldn’t get more sponsorship from actually beneficial corporations or individuals is hard to put at their door. Compromises are necessary, and sometimes as ugly as this one. And there’s been a lot of glowing and misplaced press about one of the most misleading presenters, the best funded ‘cleantech’ startup in BC. I’ll be pulling on various threads over the next couple of weeks as I explore the excellent material that was covered there.

But this isn’t about the great stuff. This piece, in the week when Greta Thunberg gave a stunningly powerful speech to the UN, linked here and which I strongly recommend you watch, is about the forces which are twisting positive efforts and preventing us from succeeding. I’m angry today. I’m angry at the almost entirely aging, white, conservative, male climate deniers who are attacking Greta Thunberg based on combinations of her age, gender, hairstyle, and non-neurotypical status. I’m angry at Canadians who are currently considering an 18-year-old evening of thoughtlessness on the part of our current PM to shift their votes to parties which have no chance of winning, and away from the one party that’s managed to move the needle on climate change action in Canada.

I’m angry. I’ll try not to rant. Too much.

The second session in the day-long climate solutions conference was what made me angry. There were three presenters from different organizations. There was the FortisBC PR representative. There was the Carbon Engineering — regularly readers will recognize that name — engineer. And there was a person from a company which retrofitted old freight trucks to use at least some hydrogen some of the time. The individuals weren’t the problem and won’t be identified. They are people who are trying to get by, and as with all such cases, think that they are doing the right things, even when they aren’t.

None of the people were the problem. It was that one of the companies was on the agenda at all, and both were allowed to assert their rather one-sided view of the problem and eliminating key data from their presentations that bothered me. These companies put their people in these untenable positions. Undoubtedly the individuals think that they are on the side of the angels, but from the outside it’s a tough sell.

Let’s start with Carbon Engineering. I’ve published nine pieces in CleanTechnica about them, most recently the one that pointed out that its only contract was an enhanced oil recovery effort in the Permian Basin for a major fossil fuel company. I’ve spoken with global experts on air-to-fuel and carbon solution challenges about them, and quoted those experts liberally, including Mark Z. Jacobson of 100% Renewables by 2050 renown. I’ve been interviewed about Carbon Engineering by other media in the US and Europe. The formal case study report is about to be published. Let’s summarize it.

Carbon Engineering’s only market is burning lots of natural gas to get more oil out of tapped out oil wells

Yes, its product is only useful for enhanced oil recovery. Every ton of CO2 that goes underground results in sufficient oil coming up that typically 2-3 times as much CO2 is created. And let’s be very, very clear: we have far more easily recoverable oil than we can afford to burn already. We do not have a problem with recovering oil that requires that we use atmospheric CO2 to recover it.

This is part and parcel of the entire fossil-fuel industry funded and lobbied for mechanical carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) industry. I’ve gone deep and wide on this subject. Even the single best case of CCS globally results in 25 times more CO2 in the atmosphere than is sequestered, by its own statistics and the statistics of the global PR organization that promotes this. The global industry’s capital expenditure alone, never mind annual operating costs, would have been vastly better spent on wind and solar generation.

But Carbon Engineering has been receiving great press, with lots of fossil fuel industry PR representatives doing their jobs to make sure that everyone heard about them. It wasn’t surprising to find the company at the conference in the second session, on new fuels. I wasn’t prepared for how viscerally I would respond to the disinformation, but yet, it happened.

So the engineer from the company started off with a great slide talking about the need to not only eliminate carbon emissions, but also to draw down carbon from the atmosphere. They talked about how every avenue had to be explored. Then they talked about the air-to-fuel pathway that the company was employing to create new, cleaner fuels that could displace fossil fuels in existing engines. So far, so good, you would think.

But what minor things did the Carbon Engineering presentation omit in its lovely slides?

  • That its process used natural gas at all
  • That its process would use 70,000 homes worth of natural gas to capture a million tons of CO2
  • That its captured CO2, given upstream emissions for the natural gas, was really mostly net new CO2, 73% per Mark Z. Jacobson’s calculation
  • Anything about enhanced oil recovery as a market
  • That its only contract was for enhanced oil recovery
  • That the only way that it had any fiscal viability was from $250 worth of credits per ton of CO2, vastly above any price of carbon in any country today and vastly above the market price of CO2
  • That its synthetic fuels were vastly higher in CO2 emissions full lifecycle than existing electrification or biofuel alternatives
  • That its synthetic fuels were vastly more expensive than existing electrification or biofuel alternatives

This wasn’t news to the company. I’ve spoken to the acting chief scientist of the organization and he told me clearly that they had read my work. Despite giving them every benefit of the doubt in my calculations, they were not even close to competitive on cost or CO2 emissions. And yet, even with that, they were silent on these major points. They had a presentation. It was lovely. It ignored these points. Even in voiceover.

Until I was too angry to contain myself. I had intended to. But this disingenuous presentation was undoubtedly luring a lot of sincere people who were committed to climate solutions into believing that a fossil fuel industry funded enhanced oil recovery technology that burned a lot of natural gas was a made-in-BC solution. That was too tough to swallow.

If the presentation had had any of the eight points listed above, even 1-2, I might have given it a pass. As it was, I asked for the audience microphone and pointed out a few of the major problems. And to the Carbon Engineering representative’s credit, they acknowledged a subset of them. I have sympathy for them, in a lot of ways. They undoubtedly think that they are doing the right thing and are committed to it.

But then there was the FortisBC presentation. Their presentation was also slick. They talked a lot about renewable natural gas and a reusable infrastructure. They asserted that they didn’t care what they delivered over their pipeline, even if it were jello, as long as there was a market for it.

FortisBC is a natural gas company that wants to sell a lot more natural gas in BC and to Asia

And they were right, kind of, up to a point, sort of. Natural gas in BC is dirt cheap. As a later, much more nuanced, governmental representative pointed out, no one in BC makes money off of natural gas right now. It’s a loss leader, at least as far as he was aware. It was the higher-value by products of natural gas generation and processing — ethane, propane, butanes, and even hydrogen — that were the money makers. At least in BC.

But BC has been angling for a decade to have a place in the liquid natural gas exportation business, with massive proposals for LNG ports that are powered by natural gas generators which compress and chill natural gas for shipment to Asia. This has warped BC politics for the past decade, at least as much as the pipeline for crude oil that’s been shaping federal politics has. More conservative, less climate-oriented elements in BC have been lobbying hard for LNG ports. Global petroleum companies have been lobbying. And every cubic meter of LNG shipped to China is a much higher priced cubic meter of LNG.

What didn’t FortisBC mention?

  • The percentage of gas it supplied that was renewable natural gas
  • That methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas
  • That Fortis had signed the first long-term contract to ship this potent greenhouse gas to China
  • That every cubic meter of renewable gas delivered in BC was offsetting a cubic meter of non-renewable gas shipped to China, in their best world vision

Minor things. Little things. Omissions.

But then it became rather surreal. The representative was challenged by the audience on the need for full electrification. And their response? Reliability. Energy was too important to be left to the electricity grid alone.

What a lovely, completely absurd argument that actually sounds good to people who don’t understand the actual empirical data. It’s a great argument, invoking fear and uncertainty and doubt. And it’s fallacious and it was hard to sell in BC.

After all, BC’s natural gas users had just experienced months of disrupted and diminished service after a single natural gas pipeline had blown up. Not that it was the only natural gas pipeline to have blown up, spewing high-GHG potential methane into the atmosphere. And after a major windstorm, the electrical supply was almost completely restored within 24 hours.

Meanwhile, Germany and Denmark, with very high penetrations of renewable electricity on their grid, average under 15 minutes of disruption per year per customer. And Texas, after a decade of expanding wind and solar in preference over fossil fuel generation, has climbed 20% in reliability rankings by state for its electricity grid. Empirically, globally, renewably powered electrical grids are the most reliable sources of energy we have.

Natural gas need not apply, if the question is reliability. Thankfully, someone else pointed this out to the Fortis representative, so I didn’t have to.

And I’ll say this again. The BC SEA organization is not in the wrong. They are trying to fight the good fight, and the only company that was willing to be a gold sponsor was from the fossil fuel industry, a company that they knew would warp and distort, but hopefully not destroy their efforts. If I were on the board, I might very well have supported the decision, as much as I might like to think I wouldn’t from the outside.

But yes, after a fossil fuel dominated session in a climate solutions conference, and the increasingly vicious attacks on Greta Thunberg, and the currently increasingly split vote of people who actually care about climate change in Canada, I’m angry. Not as angry as Greta. But nonetheless, angry. We have to do better. And we can’t let the fossil fuel industry continue to get in the way of progress, as they clearly did on Friday.

Featured image: US DOE

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 647 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard