Gas is dirtier than coal – it is NOT clean and green

    Subject: Gas can be dirtier than coal but Government & NGOs falsely assert that gas is clean energy


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Gas can be dirtier than coal but Government & NGOs falsely assert that gas is clean energy

By Dr Gideon Polya

Created 24/06/2010 – 12:58

The Australian Labor Government is utterly incorrect in its repeated assertion that “natural gas is clean energy”.  However this untruth remains formally uncorrected and is now spreading through society, through media and even into the environment movement as outlined below. [1].

The truth is otherwise – natural gas is dirty energy and on combustion is twice as carbon dioxide (CO2) polluting  as brown coal on a weight basis. Further, in Victoria  the carbon pollution currently ranges from 1.2-1.5 tonnes C/MWh for major brown coal  plants and 0.6-0.9 tonnes C/MWh for major gas-fired plants – gas may be “clean-er” on this basis but is certainly not “clean”. [2].  

However even the asserted  “clean-er” status of gas as a fossil fuel is belied by the recent analysis  by Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University, New York, USA, who concludes that when one factors in industrial  gas leakage “natural gas may be worse [than coal] in terms of consequences on global warming.” [3].

Some basic high school chemistry is called for at this stage of the argument. ( I should state my credentials here. I started studying Chemistry and Biology at the University of Tasmania in 1961 and was awarded the Masson Memorial Medal of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute in 1966. After a PhD at Flinders University of South Australia and a postdoctoral period at Cornell University, New York, on CSIRO and National Science Foundation Fellowships and a period at the Australian National University as a Queen Elizabeth II Fellow, I researched and taught Biochemistry at La Trobe University from 1972 onwards. I published some 130 works in a 5 decade scientific career, most recently a huge pharmacological reference text “Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds” (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, New York & London , 2003). After retiring from laboratory research in 2003, the last scientific publication I co-authored was in 2006 on the structure of a fungal toxin. In recent years I have been teaching a full semester theory and laboratory class course on Biochemistry to second year Agricultural Science students at La Trobe University in addition to other teaching and lecturing elsewhere, notably in the area of man-made climate change).

Natural gas (mostly methane, CH4) yields carbon dioxide (CO2) on combustion as does black coal (mostly Carbon, C) and brown coal (65% water, H2O).  

The molecular weights of CH4 and CO2 are 16 and 44, respectively. The atomic weights of oxygen (O), carbon (C) and hydrogen (H) are 16, 12 and 1, respectively.

Burning 16 tonnes of CH4 yields 44 tonnes CO2 (i.e. burning 1 tonne of natural gas yields 2.8 tonnes CO2).

Burning 12 tonnes of C yields 44 tonnes of CO2 (i.e. burning 1 tonne of coal – assuming it to be 100% carbon – yields 3.7 tonnes of CO2).

Brown coal (that is burned to produce most of the electricity in Victoria, Australia) has a water (H2O) content of about 65% and thus burning 1 tonne of brown coal would yield 0.35 x 3.7 = 1.3 tonnes of CO2, or about 46% of that produced by burning 1 tonne of natural gas (2.8 tonnes of CO2).

Clearly, on a weight basis, burning natural gas (CH4) yields twice as much CO2 as burning brown coal. However proponents of gas burning assert that it is only 50% as polluting as black coal and only 30% as polluting as brown coal in terms of grams CO2 generated per million joules of energy.

This is contradicted by Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University who estimates that because of a 1.5% industrial methane leakage and because methane is 72 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas (GHG) on a 20 year time scale, hydraulic fracturing-derived natural gas may be worse than black coal in terms of GHG pollution: “natural gas may be worse [than coal] in terms of consequences on global warming … Far better would be to rapidly move to an economy based on renewable fuels. Recent studies indicate that the U.S. and the world could rely 100% on such green energy sources within 20 years …”. [3].

Unfortunately, various groups (notably Environment Victoria and the WWF) are advocating a transition from coal that  partly involves gas burning. [4, 5].

Thus the Australian Gas Association-supported and WWF- and business-sponsored study “A Clean Energy Future for Australia” has a “Clean Energy Scenario 2” in which only 31.5% of electricity is from renewables (wind, hydro and solar) and the remainder involves generating CO2 from natural gas (17%), petroleum (1%), biomass (26%), black coal  (9%), brown coal (0%) and cogeneration (15%, 13% from gas, 2 % from biomass). [6].

Hazelwood power station, located in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria, is Australia’s dirtiest power station. In generating 11,770 GWh  of electricity per annum Hazelwood produces more than 16 million tonnes CO2-e (CO2 equivalent) of greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution each year ( 1.4 t CO2-e/MWh and 15 percent of Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions).  Hazelwood’s annual water use is 27 billion litres. [2].

Environment Victoria (EV) is running a campaign to replace Hazelwood, with “clean energy” by 2012: “Environment Victoria is spearheading a major campaign calling on the state and federal governments to close Hazelwood Power Station by 2012, and replace it with a combination of renewable energy, energy efficiency and as a transition fuel, gas”. [7].

EV directs those interested to a  Report it commissioned from Green Energy Markets entitled “Fast-tracking Victoria’s clean energy future to replace Hazelwood”  [2].

The Report is littered with implications that gas is “clean energy” while admitting in several places that it is a fossil fuel that generates CO2 on combustion. Indeed the Report shows that the carbon pollution currently ranges from 1.2-1.5 tonnes CO2e/MWh for major Victorian brown coal-based electricity plants and 0.6-0.9 tonnes CO2-e/MWh for existing Victorian gas-based electricity plants. However the proposed “mix of clean energy options to replace Hazelwood” is  62.1% combined cycle gas, 37.9% renewable (2020 Scenario 1) and 33.3% combined cycle gas, 37.5% renewables, and  29.2% efficiency and management savings (2020 Scenario 2).  The Report and Environment Victoria ignore any GHG contribution due to gas leakage (a major item according to Professor Howarth). [2, 3].

Unfortunately, while clearly aware that gas is a fossil fuel and the major gas component of its proposed  energy mix, EV then asks for tax-deductible donations to “Help replace Hazelwood with Clean Energy by 2012”. [4].

One is reminded of the famous “Oils ain’t oils” Castrol GTX Oil advertisements. Environment Victoria and its commissioned Report are in effect  saying that “Carbon pollution ain’t carbon pollution”.

This is not a scientific quibble or a semantic point. The chemistry is clear and the words “clean, cleaner, cleanest” have precise semantic meanings and precise mathematical implications.

The problem facing Humanity is dire as summarized out by a recent statement signed by 255 members of the prestigious US National Academy of Sciences (including 11 Nobel Laureates) that concluded: “Society has two choices: we can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.” [8].

Top climate scientists demand a rapid return of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) from the present dangerous and damaging 390 parts per million (ppm) to a safe and sustainable 300 ppm for a safe and sustainable environment for all nations, all peoples and all species. [9].  

Both Dr James Lovelock FRS (Gaia hypothesis) and Professor Kevin Anderson ( Director, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester, UK) have recently estimated that as few as 0.5 billion people will survive this century due to unaddressed, man-made global warming. Noting that the world population is expected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050, these estimates translate to a Climate Genocide involving deaths of 10 billion people this century, this including 6 billion under-5 year old infants, 3 billion Muslims in a terminal Muslim Holocaust, 2 billion Indians, 1.3 billion non-Arab Africans, 0.5 billion Bengalis, 0.3 billion Pakistanis and 0.3 billion Bangladeshis. [10].

Already 16 million people (about 9.5 million of them under-5 year old infants) die avoidably every year due to deprivation and deprivation-exacerbated disease – and man-made global warming is already clearly worsening this global avoidable mortality holocaust. However 10 billion avoidable deaths due to global warming this century yields an average annual avoidable death rate of 100 million per year. [10].

Collective, national responsibility for this already commenced Climate Holocaust is in direct proportion to per capita national pollution of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases (GHGs). Indeed, fundamental to any international agreement on national rights to pollute our common atmosphere and oceans should be the belief that “all men are created equal”. However reality is otherwise: “annual per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution” in units of “tonnes CO2-equivalent per person per year” (2005-2008 data) is 0.9 (Bangladesh), 0.9 (Pakistan), 2.2 (India), less than 3 (many African and Island countries), 3.2 (the Developing World), 5.5 (China), 6.7 (the World), 11 (Europe), 16 (the Developed World), 27 (the US) and 30 (Australia; or 54 if Australia’s huge Exported CO2 pollution is included). [10].

And of course the pro-coal, pro-fossil fuel, Australian Labor Government continues to incorrectly assert that “gas is clean energy” as shown by the following statements by Australian Government ministers. [1].

1. Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean on 29 February 2008 re  Woodside-CPC Corporation Taiwan LNG Deal: “The LNG Supply Agreement has the potential to bring revenues in the order of $35 billion to $45 billion into Australia, equal to the largest-ever single trade deal in Australia’s history. The future for Australia’s energy sector is an exciting one. We have a reputation as a secure and reliable supplier of clean energy on competitive, market terms. Demand for LNG imports from the major markets of North Asia is expected to increase from over 90 million tonnes in 2006 to 140 million tonnes by 2020.” [11]

2. Australian Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson (being interviewed re the A$50 billion (US$41 billion) LNG export deal with China and a $25 billion LNG export deal with India ): “LNG is part of a movement to low emissions fuel economy because it is clean energy… But it’s also important to India and China that we also go forward on the climate change challenge” [12].

3. Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean (being interviewed re the A$50 billion (US$41 billion) LNG deal with China and a $25 billion LNG export deal with India ): “But it is the great deal from China in terms of a clean-energy source… We’re not just selling the gas, we’re also selling the [carbon capture and storage] technology.” [12].

4. Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean (being interviewed re the A$50 billion (US$41 billion) LNG deal with China ): “ Well, time will tell in terms of what impact on the GDP. I think that what we’ve got to look at is the revenue stream – $40 billion over the next 20 years. But there are other aspects of this too, Kellie, which I think are really important. Clearly Australia is now being seen as a global player by China , for gas, clean fuel. This development is also the largest single CO2 storage, so carbon sequestration. It’s not just export of the gas, it’s export of the technology, and obviously if China wants long-term supply from Australia, it’s going to have enormous knock-on ramifications for other countries in the region that also have to secure their energy resource going forward….Australia also has gas reserves on the east coast, methane gas. So Australia positioning itself as a global supplier of clean energy to the world, I think is not just important in terms of this specific initiative, but going forward the opportunities that can be made from it.” [13].

5. The Renewable Energy Target (RET) Bill passed by the Australian Parliament (August 2009) sets a target of “20% renewable by 2020” and measures this by allotting 1 Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) per 1 MWh (megawatt hour = million watt hour) of renewable electricity generated and put into the grid. However what can be regarded as renewable energy (clean energy) under the legislation includes a number of clearly non-renewable components, most notoriously  “Phantom renewable energy” or “fake accountant’s renewable energy” (whereby  5 RECs are issued for every 1 MWh of solar or wind electricity put into the power grid) and natural gas (methane) e.g. Coal (C ) -, oil ( (CH2)n) – or gas (CH4) -based electricity for electric hot water (clearly non-renewable energy),  gas (CH4) -based or other carbon (C)-based electricity for solar hot water (clearly non-renewable energy), methane gas (CH4) from coal seams (clearly non-renewable energy), and methane gas (CH4) from land-fill (clearly non-renewable energy). This is an absurd way to tackle Australia’s world-leading annual per capita greenhouse gas pollution. [14, 15].

6. Australian Minister of Trade  Simon Crean,  in an interview with  Linda Mottram of Radio Australia about an offer of US$ 500 million loan to support a LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) project in Papua New Guinea, stated: “We hope that the revenues that come from this will mean going into the future, they won’t require the same dependence on aid from Australia to keep going. It’s also important that Australia encourages cleaner energy sources. LNG energy is one of those clean energy sources. Australia is a huge participant in that area. It’s in our interests to develop the region as a reliable energy supplier to the world.” [16].

7. Hailing Gorgon’s US$41 billion supply contract with PetroChina, the largest trade deal in Australian history,  Resources Minister Martin Ferguson said: “This unprecedented export deal confirms Australia’s importance as a global energy superpower supplying vital clean energy resources and technologies to China and our other Asia-Pacific trading partners.” [17].

8. Australian PM Kevin Rudd quoted by an iStock analyst, 10 September 2009: “The Australian subsidiary of energy giant Chevron Corp. has secured two deals to export up to A$70 billion (US$60 billion) worth of liquid natural gas to Japan for the next 25 years, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told Parliament on Thursday…Rudd lauded the deals, saying they will “generate economic growth, jobs and prosperity for (Australia) for decades to come” He added Japan has been a “foundation investor” in Australia’s LNG industry since its inception 25 years ago. “Throughout the Asia Pacific, Australian LNG will be increasingly important as a reliable, secure, clean energy source to power continued economic growth,” Rudd said.”  [18].

9. Climate Change Minister Penny Wong,  transcript of doorstop interview, Canberra CSIRO Black Mountain, 2009:

“JOURNALIST: Minister, how can you justify including the methane coal gas in the RET [Renewable Energy Target] ?

WONG: Well look, this is a measure which is recognising that methane is a gas that contributes to climate change, recognising that there are firms who were early movers under the Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme in New South Wales. We have moved to include it, recognising it’s not a renewable energy source but there are environmental benefits to including it for a specified period and for existing projects to assist, to continue to protect employment in those areas. We have said this will be above the 20 per cent target so we are not going to be eating into the amount of renewable energy investment in Australia.

JOURNALIST: Couldn’t you have created a separate mechanism to deal with it though? Why did it have to be included in the RET legislation?

WONG: Well, people always want another set of regulations and another set of mechanisms. We think this is the simplest, cleanest way to deal with an issue [i.e. classifying an admittedly non-renewable energy source and major greenhouse gas  source as a renewable energy source], there is environmental benefit and we preserved the integrity of our renewable energy investment by ensuring that this is above the 20 per cent target so I think a good result all round.” [19].

10. Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett in giving  the go-ahead to the multibillion-dollar Gorgon LNG project on Barrow Island, which is situated off the north-west coast of Australia: “ I don’t believe that there will be unacceptable impacts”. [20].

According  to the Sydney Morning Herald, “The overall Barrow Basin gas project is estimated to be worth $300 billion in total gas sales, with $200 billion in already existing commitments. This month, ExxonMobil agreed to sell Chinese state-owned company PetroChina 2.25 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas from Gorgon – worth an estimated $50 billion over 20 years – the biggest resources deal in Australia’s history. The Gorgon gas plant on Barrow Island was first approved under the Howard government in 2007, but was returned for further environmental assessment in 2008 when Chevron decided to expand the project.” [20]

Accordingly one can calculate that (2.25 million tonnes LNG /$50 billion) x $300 billion total sales = 13.5 million tonnes LNG = 13.5 tonnes CH4 x 2.8 tonnes CO2/tonne CH4 = 37.8 million tonnes CO2 (for context, the Australia’s huge and disproportionate “annual LNG and coal exports” adduced from projection from US Energy Information Administration data,  was 502.7 million tonnes CO2 in 2008) – yet Minister Garrett says of just this one particular  major carbon-polluting project in Australia, one of the World’s worst annual per capita GHG polluters:. “ I don’t believe that there will be unacceptable impacts.” [20].


The false assertions of Labor Government Ministers that “gas is clean energy” have gone unchallenged in Parliament and in the Mainstream media. This incorrect assertion has now spread to respected environmental organizations. False assertions utterly undermine rational risk management in general. In this instance the false assertion that “gas is clean energy” will simply divert Australia to counterproductive policies  and away from rational responses to the immense threat posed by man-made climate change.

[1]. Gideon Polya, “Correcting the Australian Government – natural gas is NOT clean energy”, Open Forum, 7 February 2010: [1] ). 

[2]. Green Energy Markets, “Fast-tracking Victoria’s clean energy future to replace Hazelwood”, 2010: [2] ).

[3]. Professor Robert Howarth, “Preliminary assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas obtained by hydraulic fracturing”, Cornell University, 17 March 2010:–%20April%201,%202010%20draft.pdf [3] .

[4]. Environment Victoria, ““Fast-tracking Victoria’s clean energy future to replace Hazelwood”, 2010: [4] .

[5]. World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Australia (WWF), “Clean energy future”, 2010: [5] .

[6]. “A Clean Energy Future for Australia”: [6] .

[7]. Environment Victoria, “Replace Hazelwood”, 2010: [7] .

[8]. Members of the US National Academy of Sciences, “Open Letter: Climate change and the integrity if science”: [8] .

[9]. “ – return atmosphere CO2 to 300 ppm”:—return-atmosphere-co2-to-300-ppm [9] .

[10]. “Climate Genocide”: [10] .

[11]. Simon Crean “Government welcomes Woodside-CPC Corporation Taiwan LNG Deal”.  Minister Simon Crean’s official website: [11] ).

[12]. Simon Crean & Martin Ferguson quoted by SBS World News, “Energy top of agenda after landmark deal“, 19 August 2009: [12].

[13]. Simon Crean, Transcript, “Interview with Kellie Connolly, National Nine News; subject: $50 billion gas deal with China ”, Simon Crean website, 18 August 2009: [13].

[14]. Gideon Polya, “Australia Absurdly Declares Methane Burning
Clean And Renewable”, Countercurrents, 26 August 2009: [14] .

 [15].  Gideon Polya, “Post-Copenhagen Australia will increase its per capita Domestic plus Exported GHG pollution”, Yarra Valley Climate Action Group: [15] .

[16]. Simon Crean, “Interview – Linda Mottram of Radio Australia”, Minister Simon Crean website, 9 December 2009: [16] .

[17]. Martin Ferguson, quoted by Neil Sands, “LNG boom to make Australia :Middle East” of gas”, The Age, 30 August 2009: [17] .

[18]. Kevin Rudd quoted by iStockAnalyst, “Chevron Australia signs A$70 Bil. LNG export deal with Japan”, 10 September 2009: [18] .

[19]. Penny Wong, interviewed by Get Farming, Transcript of interview, 2009: [19] .

[20]. Peter Garrett interview, Tom Arrup, “Garrett announces environmental approval for $50b Gordon project”, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 August 2009: [20] .


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[2] Victoria’s clean energy future to replace Hazelwood.pdf
[3] emissions from Marcellus Shale — April 1, 2010 draft.pdf

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