A Bridge to Sell You

NW Natural‘s ‘Destination Zero’ is a bridge to nowhere

by Danny Noonan

About a decade ago, the fossil fuel industry sold the public the idea that gas could be a “bridge fuel” between coal-fired and renewable electricity (solar and wind). Instead, the fracking boom that ensued produced an enormous increase in methane, a greenhouse gas around 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short-term.

Gas utility NW Natural has a new bridge to sell you.

In launching its assault on the city of Eugene’s electrification plans, NW Natural’s campaign website proposes “a better path to a renewable future.” The gas utility claims it “is evolving by working to provide communities with renewable natural gas and clean hydrogen over time.” 

NW Natural attempts to support this through its “VISION 2050: Destination Zero” plan, purporting to transform NW Natural’s fracked-gas product into a net-zero-emissions energy source. 

As with previous bridge fuel claims, when fossil fuel companies aggressively promote an emissions reduction solution that sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Such is the case with Destination Zero. In addition to extensive use of renewable natural gas (RNG), and “clean” hydrogen, Destination Zero relies on offsets to project net-zero emissions. Given the audacity of this claim, each component of the plan deserves scrutiny.

So-called “renewable” natural gas is simply methane gas produced from organic processes (waste gas would be more accurate, as RNG is sourced primarily from agricultural and human waste). The emissions-reduction case for RNG is that the carbon dioxide emissions from burning methane is preferable to letting methane escape into the atmosphere. There are several problems with this argument as it pertains to NW Natural’s plans in Oregon. 

There is no evidence that RNG facilities exist at the scale needed to make up a significant proportion of the gas currently in NW Natural’s system. Despite its claim that RNG is “is on its way home” to Oregon, NW Natural is currently purchasing virtually all of its RNG from facilities outside of Oregon (eg Tyson Foods facilities in Nebraska). That gas never actually makes it to Oregon; it is sold to out-of-state utilities and their customers. 

What allows NW Natural to claim RNG is reducing emissions in Oregon is an accounting trick. After purchasing RNG from out-of-state sources, NW Natural applies the reduced emissions from that RNG (so-called “renewable thermal credits”) to its fossil fuel-derived methane gas delivered in Oregon. 

So, the gas delivered to customers in Oregon comes from fracking. Because a utility in the Midwest agrees to treat NW Natural’s RNG as if it were fracked gas, NW Natural gets to treat some of its Oregon fracked gas like RNG. 

This is a corporate shell game — the climate version of offshore tax avoidance — designed to greenwash NW Natural’s activities on paper without materially changing what’s delivered.

Another problem with RNG comes from partnering with massive agricultural conglomerates like Tyson Foods. Attempting to procure large quantities of RNG will create a perverse incentive to expand the most emissions- and waste-intensive agricultural operations (factory farms) to meet this demand. Any reduction in building sector emissions could simply lead to increased emissions in the agricultural sector, not to mention additional air and water quality issues for communities living near intensive agricultural facilities.

Clean hydrogen is shorthand for hydrogen-methane mixing — replacing a small portion of the methane gas delivered to gas appliances with hydrogen. Burning hydrogen produces water vapor rather than greenhouse gasses, theoretically reducing the emissions of that fuel source. Yet, as said in a recent challenge by Beyond Toxics and other community groups to NW Natural’s now-withdrawn proposal to introduce hydrogen-methane mixing into its system in the Bethel neighborhood, the technology is riddled with issues, like cost. 

It’s an incredibly expensive way to reduce emissions compared to replacing gas appliances with electric alternatives, and hydrogen will only ever be a minority of the fuel delivered to consumers. There are further risks, including a greater risk of explosions and potentially increased air quality issues. Hydrogen also requires a substantial amount of energy to produce; if the energy used is coming from fossil fuels, then the emissions reduction benefits are even more dubious.

Offsets have long been criticized by the climate movement due to questions around their credibility and verifiability, and for creating perverse incentives for those selling offsets to polluters. More importantly, to the extent that offsets (and RNG and hydrogen) have a role to play in an economy-wide effort to reduce emissions to zero, they should be reserved for emissions sources that don’t have a viable replacement. In buildings, electrification already exists as a proven, immediately deployable, emissions-free alternative to gas heating and cooking.

Make no mistake, NW Natural remains a fossil fuel company. Greenhouse gas emissions are its product. “Destination Zero” exists not because NW Natural is genuinely committed to addressing the climate crisis, but because greenwashing is good for the bottom line. NW Natural’s net-zero plan seeks only to deceive the public into believing in the merits of a gas system that, if it were ever realized, would be more expensive and hazardous than the one that exists today; just as if not more hazardous to indoor air quality and public health; and achieve no economy-wide benefit in reducing emissions. 

By deluding its customers and the public, NW Natural hopes to lock in gas, slow the energy transition and preserve profits for as long as possible. If you believe otherwise, I have a bridge to sell you.

Danny Noonan is a climate and energy strategist with Breach Collective, a nonprofit organization based in Eugene and Portland.

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