U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa has differentiated her candidacy from Gov. David Ige’s in relatively few ways, but one of the more significant is her support for LNG as a “bridge fuel.”

While liquefied natural gas is often touted as a greener alternative to coal, the truth is LNG is far more likely to exacerbate our present energy issues then solve them. Hanabusa should firmly reject LNG as an option for Hawaii before environmentalists can consider supporting her in earnest.

Bridge fuels in general are a little like offering to fix Flint, Michigan’s, water problems by replacing the lead in water with cyanide in order to hopefully, one day deliver clean water. LNG in particular is a bad idea — it’s possibly more like replacing the lead with uranium to speed things along. It will not reduce our environmental footprint, alleviate our reliance on imports, or prove cheap.

Climate change is an existential problem for Hawaii and all Pacific island nations. It will do more than deplete our fish stocks and erode our shorelines; climate change will be expensive.

Hawaii Gas employees on the LNG tank at Pier 38 in 2016. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A recent study by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and others estimates that climate change will result in $19 billion in property damages. An analysis conducted for the Waikiki Improvement Association estimates that sea-level rise in Waikiki alone could result in an additional $2 billion in annual losses to Hawaii.

Climate change — more than rail, more than our unfunded liabilities, more than the monster homes or the housing crisis — will determine the future of the state. Hawaii, thankfully, is arguably the world leader in its efforts to move entirely to renewable energy.

The policies adopted by the legislators and Gov. Ige and the work done by HECO and KIUC are keeping us a world leader. We have the chance to help accelerate the world along the path to a sustainable future. Adopting LNG would move us from a position of leadership to whitewashing for the fracking industry.

LNG is, essentially, very cold natural gas. Its proponents like to claim that it is cleaner than oil or coal-based plants. These claims rely on assumptions regarding the amount of LNG that leaks during transportation.

The industry does some fuzzy math to justify their numbers, but the most recent findings indicate that LNG is at best on par with conventional fossil fuels such as coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and more likely to be worse than coal.

Greenhouse Gasses

What is particularly troubling about LNG is the type of greenhouse gasses it emits. LNG is predominantly methane. On the time scale of 20 years, roughly the entire time Hawaii would use LNG as a “bridge,” methane emissions have 86 times the warming effect of CO2 emissions.

Methane’s rampant damage to the environment might be mitigated by the reduction in CO2 emissions when burning LNG. In order for that to occur, methane leaks, off-gassing and slip would need to be kept somewhere between 2.4 percent to 3 percent of the total extracted LNG. And there is little evidence that they are being kept that low.

Estimates for how much methane from LNG escapes to the atmosphere range from 2.7 to 5.6 percent. The two largest and most recent studies indicate that methane emissions range from 4.4 percent to 5.6 percent when the total life cycle of LNG is examined.

That is, there is a very slim chance that LNG is marginally better than coal and a much larger potential that it is significantly worse. Proposals to use LNG as a bridge fuel boil down to proposals to warm the planet at a rate at least 20 percent faster than coal  just as we are supposed to be slowing down.

In fairness, LNG does avoid emissions of NOX and sulfuric gasses, which are toxic, but these can be largely controlled in conventional power plants with scrubbers. Sulfuric gasses, while again far from an environmental hero, can actually have a cooling effect — though this shouldn’t be seen as a reason to emit them.

LNG until relatively recently was an expensive fuel. A sharp expansion in extraction operations have lead to a glut on the market, driving its costs sharply downward to where they are competitive with coal and other fossil fuel sources. This expansion, in the U.S., has been driven by fracking.

Fracking is an extraction process with at best a highly dubious environmental and ethical history: with links to reductions in water quality, seismic activity, and generally poor environmental impacts. Hawaii should have no part in encouraging a system that preys on poor and minority communities.

That aside, there is little reason to think that LNG’s current price competitiveness will continue. LNG prices are rising and predicted to continue increasing at annual rates of 4-5 percent.

LNG is significantly more volatile than coal and oil, with price changes of 600 percent between the previous decades’ high and low. This means that any volatility in LNG prices could leave Hawaii residents faced with more of the same or worse rate increases they’ve recently faced.

In fact, estimates of the levelized cost of energy, which is an indicator of the break-even rates of various energy sources, indicate that the cost of LNG at present rates are  comparable to renewable sources, namely wind, solar, and geothermal. And that’s true even without subsidies. What this means is that investment in LNG does not pose a substantial cost benefit over renewables when the total life cycle of the plant is assessed.

Relying on LNG will not move the needle in billions we spend on importing fuels every year.

A similar measure, called Energy Return on Investment, shows LNG performing even worse. It is likely that any LNG plant in Hawaii would have an LCOE significantly higher than the EPA estimates. This is because our renewable commitments will shorten the time available to amortize fixed capital costs.

LCOE does not account for demand-related issues, notably the need for a base load and ramp capable energy production. But while LNG would be better suited for such applications compared to renewables without storage, relying on LNG would expose us to high volatility prices and do nothing to change our reliance on imports.

Relying on LNG will not move the needle in billions we spend on importing fuels every year. What we do have is the potential to grow and invest in biofuels which are a far more appropriate bridge fuel as they are carbon neutral, could replace the billions we spend on imports to billions invested here in Hawaii, and could help restart and diversify Hawaii’s agricultural sector.

Far from being a bridge fuel, LNG is just another polluting dead-end. It’s unlikely to be cheaper than pursuing renewable sources, it’s almost certain to accelerate the pace of climate change, and it will do nothing to reduce Hawaii’s dependence on imported energy. 

Hawaii cannot again fall for the sort of industry ad copy that gifted us with rail. Hawaii needs policy built on facts and vision, not presupposition.

Hanabusa should join Ige in rejecting LNG as an energy option for Hawaii. LNG is not a solution and to propose so is to fall for the grift and half-truths of an industry with little apparent concern for a sustainable future.

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