I was disappointed The Seattle Times editorial board criticized Gov. Jay Inslee for coming out in opposition to the Tacoma liquid natural gas (LNG) facility [“Gov. Inslee is wrong to flip-flop on liquefied natural-gas facility in Tacoma,” Opinion, May 17.]
The editorial said the LNG project will help reduce climate emissions. This is wrong, though the science around natural gas is complex and many people misunderstand the climate impacts of natural-gas projects. In fact, I was neutral about this project for a long time, but once I learned the impacts of the project over the next few decades, I saw that it was clearly bad for the climate.
It is true that the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, in its report on the cradle-to-grave climate impacts of the LNG plant, concluded that the LNG plant would be 1-4% better than changing nothing about how we currently fuel ships in Tacoma. That conclusion was based on climate impacts of the plant after 100 years.
Its conclusion would have been different if it looked at the climate impacts after 20 years, but Washington regulations require agencies to use a 100-year timeline. As a general rule, looking at pollution impacts at 100 years into the future is good because we want to know how pollution will impact the environment and people in the long term. However, natural gas is the exception to the rule, and looking at the impacts of natural gas in our atmosphere 100 years into the future does not tell us the whole story.
Here’s why. Natural gas consists primarily of methane. Methane, like carbon dioxide, is a greenhouse gas and traps heat in our atmosphere. However, methane molecules are much more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, and traps 86 times more heat in our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. But that potency doesn’t last forever. Methane molecules break down over time into carbon dioxide. If you release a ton of methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, after 20 years, the methane will be 86 times more potent than the carbon dioxide. After 100 years, almost all of the methane will have broken down into carbon dioxide.
So, 100 years after the LNG project would start, the impacts of the natural gas extraction and fuel burning would be marginally better than the status quo. But it’s much worse than the status quo at the 20 year timeline. Using Puget Sound Clean Air agency data and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on global warming potential, we found it is the equivalent to putting 145,000 cars on the road each year.
If we were headed toward a climate problem 100 years from now, LNG might be the answer. But we are in a rapidly worsening climate crisis now — scientists say that if we don’t cut global climate emissions in half by 2030, we are headed toward widespread climate catastrophe.
This LNG project would increase climate pollution at the time we must significantly cut climate pollution. Making the systems change to adequately reduce climate emissions is going to be a very heavy lift, and this LNG project would make doing so even harder.
There are other noteworthy flaws in the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency analysis that, if fixed, would add to the reasons LNG is a bad idea. For example, the agency compared the LNG project to a status quo that they assume would never change — and we know the status quo will change, especially in a region that innovates new technology so readily.
The Seattle Times editorial board got it right that the climate crisis should be a top priority, but it’s wrong about the impacts of this LNG project. I believe Gov. Inslee was being genuine in his change of mind about this project, because I changed my own mind for the same reason.