The head of the largest US natural gas producer has said boosting American exports of the fuel could be the “biggest green initiative on the planet” by displacing coal at power stations.
Global coal-fired electricity generation will hit a new all-time high in 2021, the International Energy Agency said last week in what it called a “worrying sign” for the climate.
Toby Rice, chief executive of natural gas company EQT, said in an interview that the world would decarbonise more quickly if Asian countries could buy more liquefied natural gas to replace coal to generate power.
“We cannot export solar, we cannot export wind, we cannot export nuclear. We should develop all those technologies. But right now the only thing we can export that will have a tremendous impact on the environment is US LNG,” Rice told the Financial Times.
He spoke as EQT and its peers face pressure over fuel prices and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their products.
The Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren sent letters to Rice and other US oil and gas company heads blaming a recent price surge on exports of LNG, natural gas that is super-chilled so it can be shipped on vessels.
Earlier this year the IEA said that no new oil and gas projects would be needed if the world were to keep a global temperature rise to just 1.5C, in line with the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
“Also not needed are many of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) liquefaction facilities currently under construction or at the planning stage,” the IEA said.
Pittsburgh-based EQT does not export LNG, but produces natural gas from prolific Appalachian shale fields in the north-eastern US. The gas industry is grappling for its future in the country as the Biden administration has pledged to fully decarbonise the power sector by 2035 and crack down on pollution from methane, a potent greenhouse gas that often leaks from industry infrastructure.
The EQT chief said that by capturing greenhouse gas at power plants, natural gas could eventually be “zero carbon”. But he said the fuel should be recognised for its role in reducing US greenhouse gas emissions in the past 15 years — and promoted internationally.
“We cut our emissions by almost 1bn tonnes a year because of coal to gas switching, but during that same period China and India have raised their emissions by 6bn tonnes” as coal generation continued to rise in those countries, Rice said.
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Coal emits about twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas during combustion, but natural gas will still account for over 20 per cent of total global CO2 emissions this year, according to the IEA.
Climate campaigners say that further expanding natural gas infrastructure would lock in future dependence on a fossil fuel that must also be eradicated from the global energy system if climate targets are to be met.
Some studies have also shown that when methane pollution from the natural gas business is included, its climate advantage over coal may be less than thought.
Rice said opposition to new pipelines to connect the gasfields with export terminals or large domestic markets was hindering its ability to increase output.
“I’m saying it loud and clear. We want to do more, but we can’t — we need pipelines,” Rice said. “We want the world to say ‘Yes, we want this product’.”
Read More: Largest US natural gas producer pushes exports as ‘green initiative’