Environmental groups charge that the oil and gas industry is using promises of a future “green” fossil fuel economy to boost the use of the fuels in the present.

The Biden administration is backing a broad expansion of U.S. gas exports and a buildout in the infrastructure needed to produce it.

That includes government approval of liquid natural gas plants and deepwater export terminals along the Gulf Coast, in South Florida and in New Jersey.

“We know that oil and gas will remain part of our energy mix for years to come,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm told a leading oil industry event in March.

Even by midcentury “we’ll be using abated fossil fuels,” Granholm added, referring to fuels whose carbon cost has been lessened by some technological means.

Like the Obama administration before it, the Biden Department of Energy has thrown its support behind a vision of a new-model fossil fuel industry that captures its climate-warming emissions — while producing clean-burning products like hydrogen.

Much of this remains theoretical: the Democrats’ landmark 2022 energy package contains billions for carbon capture facilities; carbon dioxide pipelines and regional hubs to pull hydrogen fuel from gas.

But the oil and gas sector is already building out the infrastructure to sell customers products billed as lower-emission — which may be called “green,” “certified,” “low-carbon,” or “responsibly sourced” gas. 

Could ‘certified’ gas be a green solution?

Companies like the for-profit Project Canary and EO100 and the nonprofit MiQ have pitched their certification of “socially responsible gas” as a win-win solution to the age-old challenge between the need to slow planetary heating and the need for on-demand power.

“People need to understand that [certified gas] is the cleanest carbon on the planet, and we need to bring 2 billion people out of poverty with this enormously clean carbon fuel,” Project Canary CEO Chris Romer told interviewers last September.

Romer has described the certification of gas as a potentially industry-saving step in a climate-conscious world.

In April, he told a company interviewer that such documentation is “critical for the industry’s social license to operate” — its ability to persuade regulators, employees and the general public that it should exist at all.

It’s over that broader question that any consensus between most climate advocates and the oil and gas industry breaks down. 

While gas producers “must clean up their product, that doesn’t mean that they can continue to produce as much gas as they’re producing today,” said Lorne Stockman of Oil Change International. “They have to have a plan to manage the decline of their gas.”

Instead, certification programs have gone in tandem with an upswing in productions.

Pollution from methane leaks

That industry had spent much of the 2010s under a growing public relations assault spurred by increasing investigations that its gas polluted far more than had been believed. 

More than a decade of reporting from West Texas — much of it by Earthworks employees driving around with optimal gas cameras, which can take video of usually invisible methane — has revealed a constant stream of planet-warming gas spilling into the atmosphere.

These leaks — which go largely unregulated by the state government — make the Permian Basin, stretching from West Texas into New Mexico, one of the largest sources of emissions on Earth and constitute a growing commercial liability for its gas industry.

In 2020, for example, French utility Engie pulled out of a long-term deal to buy liquified natural gas from a proposed NextDecade plant on the Texas Gulf Coast, S&P Global reported. The French government, a major stakeholder, was concerned about the massive emissions from the hundreds of thousands of gas wells in the state’s arid west.

The concerns stemmed from a paradox of natural gas: while it releases less carbon dioxide than bunker oil or coal when burned, it is far more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide when it leaks into the air.

Natural gas is mostly methane — a pollutant that warms the planet dozens of times more powerfully than carbon dioxide — as well as a spicing of potential carcinogens, as The Hill reported.

Its small molecules also leak easily from wellheads, valves and pipelines — leaks which may cancel out any climate benefits of gas over coal, according to a 2018 study in Science. That study also found that the Environmental Protection Agency was likely undercounting methane leaks by 60 percent. 

And while the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that gas was slightly less carbon-intensive than coal — even with leaks factored in — it also estimated that the world energy industry leaked 135 million tons of methane in 2022. According to U.S. government data, that’s the equivalent emissions of 900 coal plants — or nearly 8,500 gas plants — running year round without producing anything.

The technology to fix this problem already exists, according to the IEA. And Project Canary CEO Romer argued that preventing leaks is lucrative: It allows gas producers to sell certified gas for many times the amount of money it costs to remove leaks from its supply chains. 

That pitch has been broadly persuasive to both the gas industry — about 20 percent to 30 percent of which now offers some kind of certified project, according to Project Canary — and national regulators. 

In May of 2021, Engie announced it was back into the Texas deal after gas producer NextDecade signed a deal with Project Canary to certify its gas, The Texas Tribune reported.

But at the highest level, critics of certified gas argue that such certification risks promoting an overly rosy picture of — and increased production by — an industry that is a major driver of climate disruption and environmental pollution.

By certifying their gas as low emission, nonprofit MiQ has helped fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and EQT claim a mantle of environmental stewardship — even as their plants and drilling operations pollute rural and minority communities, human rights nonprofit Global Witness reported.

The Global Witness noted that even in the best cases, burning natural gas still releases about half as much carbon dioxide as coal at a time when global emissions need to trend toward zero, according to International Energy Agency, a leading global energy watchdog.

Verifying certification is the issue

Then there are concerns over how to verify that gas certification is successfully cutting emissions. 

Despite company nods to the importance of transparency, these claims have been hard for third-party groups to verify because Project Canary’s findings, like those of other certifiers, are the property of the gas producers themselves.

Every place, that is, but Colorado, which now requires gas well operators to publicly report their emissions data.

For Earthworks and Oil Change International, this offered a means of checking how effective the company’s sensors are by recording leaky wells with optical gas cameras and seeing if leak events turned up in the reported data. 

A seven-month investigation published on Monday by Earthworks and Oil Change International found that sensors operated by Project Canary consistently failed to alert Colorado regulators to “significant” leaks at wells it was contracted to monitor.

In one incident, the investigators found “a very significant plume of methane and other hydrocarbons continually coming from this tank,” Josh Eisenfeld of Earthworks told The Hill. “We filmed for 15 minutes — it was going on the entire time we were there.”

In a statement to The Hill, Project Canary disputed the significance of these findings. 

But when the team checked the official records filed by Project Canary, “the needle wasn’t moving.” 

Based on the numbers filed by Project Canary to the state of Colorado, “you would say nothing is going on — even though our camera shows this continuous stream of pollution,” Eisenfeld added.

The report found 22 instances in Colorado alone where Project Canary — or sites using similar sensor technology — failed to catch significant observed pollution events, as well as 55 sites where no pollution was found.

“The Canary S units worked as designed to detect emissions in the vast majority of cases Earthworks identified,” Ray Mistry, Project Canary’s chief technology officer, wrote The Hill.

Further, Project Canary representatives said that none of the sites monitored by Earthworks had been certified and that the findings had little relevance for the company’s Trustwell certification program.

Report coauthor Eisenfeld said that Project Canary’s response reinforced the larger problem with certification: that it is almost impossible for third-party groups, including affected communities, to audit company claims — forcing them to take promises of pollution reduction on faith.

“If Project Canary would like to furnish us with a complete list of certified sites, then we’d be happy to update the report,” he told The Hill.