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Troubling endorsement of offshore gas exploration by the Climate Change Advisory Council

posted 27 Sept 2019, 09:21 by ECRN ECRN   [ updated 27 Mar 2020, 06:39 ]

Prof. Barry McMullin of the DCU ECRN offers a comprehensive exploration of the counterproductive advice offered by the CCAC to the Irish government on the issue of fossil fuels.

[An edited version of this post has been published in]

The issue of continued exploration for fossil fuels in a vexed one, globally and nationally. It is well established that, globally, already proven reserves of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas and peat) would, if directly combusted, guarantee a level of global warming far in excess of the temperature goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement (“well below 2°C” increase over pre-industrial, with “efforts” toward a significantly less destructive limit of +1.5°C). Such a scale of failure in climate change mitigation would be catastrophic for human welfare, is likely inconsistent with organised global civilisation, and would, incidentally, devastate the entire existing biosphere of planet Earth. Accordingly, common sense appears to dictate that searching for further additional fossil fuel resources to add to this “bubble” of unburnable carbon is at best pointless, and at worst risks diverting international capital away from desperately needed investments in clean (zero- or negative-CO2) energy infrastructure. Indeed, this was precisely the rationale for the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill 2018, proposed by Bríd Smith TD, and supported by all the opposition parties in the Dáil and many civil society organisations, which sought to impose a local moratorium on the issuance of new licences to explore for fossil fuels (primarily oil and natural gas) in the Irish offshore territory. Nonetheless, the Bill was trenchantly opposed, and ultimately blocked, by the Fine Gael government. Most recently, under continuing political and civil society pressure to reverse this position, the Government formally asked for the advice of Ireland’s independent Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) on this issue. That advice has now been issued: and to the puzzlement of at least some of us who have been engaged in detailed academic assessment of Irish climate policy, they have come to the conclusion that while further exploration for oil would not be appropriate, “...  the continued exploration for, and recovery of new offshore natural gas reserves can be consistent with a low carbon transition.” 

While I have considerable respect for the specific expertise of the members of the CCAC, and for the difficult role they have in the overall Irish policy landscape, I find I have to respectfully disagree with both their premises and their conclusion on this occasion; and I believe it is important to open this particular advice up to further informed peer scrutiny and critique.

In its (short) advice letter, the CCAC start by noting that known reserves of coal alone, or oil alone would already be enough to exceed the remaining +1.5°C CO2 budget; but natural gas alone would not. On this specific basis it is then (somehow) supposed that some continued natural gas exploration can be warranted. But this can only make even basic arithmetic sense if one assumes no further combustion of coal and oil, so that all the remaining CO2 budget becomes available for natural gas combustion. As that is manifestly not the case (neither globally nor nationally), then this line of reasoning appears fundamentally incoherent.

The advice note goes on to state that "Research presented to the Joint Oireachtas Committee indicates that if we are to decarbonise the Irish economy by 2050 there will be a need for significant deployment of CCS with natural gas as a component of Ireland’s energy system.” Without further context or qualification, this is troubling on multiple grounds. Firstly it seems incredible that the CCAC could still, in late 2019, be implying that “decarbonisation by 2050” represents an adequate or just climate mitigation response for wealthy, high per-capita emissions states. It simply doesn't.

While such a claim is often loosely expressed, it relies on the trope that if the “world” achieves nett zero greenhouse gas emissions (a “balance” of emissions and removals) by 2050 then we might (expressed as a roughly 66% chance) still limit the global temperature increase to +2°C. This clearly falls short of <1.5C ambition; but more importantly, rich, industrialised states such as Ireland are committed, in good faith under the Paris Agreement, to "lead", i.e., to decarbonise significantly faster than the “global average”: which necessarily implies reaching nett-zero CO2 much sooner than 2050.

In effect, it appears that the CCAC has strayed into embedding a tacit, and ultimately repugnant, political premise (namely, a globally unjust transition) as a basis for its supposedly purely scientific advice.

Separately, the advice note goes on to say that a (hypothetical, but presumed) future use of natural gas combined with carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) “reflects the intermittent nature of renewable sources of electricity and the absence, to date, of a suitable alternative backup technology...” Yet the note then immediately goes on to acknowledge that: "Internationally, the development and deployment of CCS has been limited. Meanwhile, alternative energy storage systems, such as battery storage and synthetic gas production, have advanced rapidly." This presents a peculiar juxtaposition: one immature technology (natural gas with CCS), whose development and deployment has been “limited”, and which, at best, still guarantees significant residual nett-positive CO2 emissions and requires access to indefinitely large geological CO2 storage facilities, is somehow specifically preferred over others (especially electrofuel based energy storage systems) which have already “advanced rapidly”. It is, to say the least, difficult to see how any forceful conclusions could be extracted from such equivocal foundations.

A further, critically important point, not mentioned by the CCAC is that all fossil fuel use involved “upstream” emissions, before the point of combustion, arising in exploration, extraction, processing and transport. In the case of natural gas, it is especially vulnerable to unintended leakage of the gas itself, which is primarily methane (CH4), an extremely potent greenhouse gas in its own right. CCS technology, by definition, applies only at combustion: it can do nothing to mitigate these upstream emissions.

The CCAC note does at least acknowledge that overall national energy security should be an important policy consideration in this discussion: but then fails to follow this through to contrast its purported natural gas pathway, which is necessarily contingent on an essentially speculative gamble on future resource discoveries, with a pathway that can be followed with confidence based on already known and identified indigenous energy resources.

And then of course, there is the very tangible problem that the CCAC’s almost theological attempt to separate exploration for oil from exploration for natural gas does not map onto the practical offshore reality, where both activities are inextricably linked.

The CCAC note finally appears to seek to immunise its advice (for continued natural gas exploration) from immediate critique by adding that this should be "kept under review": but such apparent policy procrastination is not somehow devoid of consequences: it specifically risks additional asset stranding and diversion of capital from the desperately needed transition to non-fossil energy.

It is unclear from the CCAC note what further underlying analysis informed its conclusion; but given the importance of the issue, and the level of social and political weight attached to it, one assumes that there exists significant additional background material. It would be very helpful for the CCAC to release this detailed analysis as soon as possible, and engage constructively with all stakeholders, and specifically including the wider national and international academic research community. Finally, and in fairness to the CCAC, who have been operating with very constrained resources, the final report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action already specifically recognised the need to enhance the Council’s “powers, functions and resources”. It will be very helpful if this can include significant improvement in the diversity of expertise represented on the Council itself, and active provision for open peer review of future draft findings, analysis or advice.