The headline above is not designed to make young heads explode, It’s really not. But it might.
Before getting to why that might be, consider why the headline is a credible statement. The evidence is, in total, overwhelming.
Here’s a 2023 headline from an anti-hydrocarbons website: “China, India lead US$534 billion global gas pipeline build out.” The article notes that globally, over 59,000 kilometres of transmission pipeline are under construction and an additional 151,000 kms are proposed (for reference, the earth’s circumference is 40,000 kms).
That’s just the growth, and that’s just the bigger transmission lines. Natural gas pipeline distribution systems are made up of large transmission lines and then smaller distribution systems. I have not been able to find a statistic for the combined length of the total global distribution system, perhaps none exists, but consider the U.S.’s pipeline system characteristics: The U.S. has over 300,000 miles of natural gas transmission lines, and about 2.2 million miles of smaller distribution pipelines – the ones that get gas to customers.
Those numbers, and particularly that ratio, give some examples of the staggering size of the global natural gas infrastructure system. And natural gas is used almost everywhere.
According to a gas infrastructure tracking site, about 130 countries in 2022 either have existing natural gas pipeline systems or have some in development.
Perhaps the most pertinent aspect of the 130-country statistic is that 103 countries as of December 2022 are developing natural gas transmission pipelines, with a total length of 210,000 kms, or more than five times the earth’s circumference.
You may read in the news that net zero 2050 is upon us, and that the fossil fuel industry is in terminal decline, full of stranded assets that will be made obsolete in a few decades because of the sheer will of governments and a very boisterous cheering section.
Yet the world isn’t acting that way at all. The U.S. is undergoing an LNG expansion boom, one that isn’t too scared of stranded assets – according to SP Global, in 2022 there were 23 LNG offtake contracts signed with a term of 20 years or greater. Another nine were signed with terms from 15-20 years.
These contracts are backstopping what is expected to be a 15 billion cubic feet per day (bcf/d) expansion of the U.S.’ LNG export capability within the next decade. Canada will eventually add a significant amount to that tally, as will Mexico.
That’s the western world. Here’s what Africa has to say: This is from the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, of which many members are African: “Unfortunately, the issue of African energy access has rarely been reported or prioritised, despite African energy consumption per capita being the lowest globally. In light of the need for a secure, affordable, and sustainable energy source to fuel economic growth and alleviate poverty in Africa, all the available energy options will continue to be relevant…the abundance of natural gas and the proven efficiency of combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) in power generation make it a suitable complement to renewables in Africa’s just transition plan.
The continent’s primary energy demand is expected to increase by 82 per cent from 860 Mtoe in 2021 to 1,565 Mtoe by 2050 (Figure 5). Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to account for 84 per cent of this growth amid higher living standards, signaling better access to energy and improvements in the energy poverty problems. Natural gas will be responsible for around 30 per cent of Africa’s total energy demand increase.”
Here is a list of countries that have, in the past few years, either built or are planning to build, LNG import terminals (source: articles like this and this): Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, and Puerto Rico, and Germany.
The following countries have called for support of Africa in pursuing natural gas development (and long-term gas displacement by renewable energy and green hydrogen “if financially and technically feasible”): Kigali, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
The following countries are looking to be LNG exporters by the end of the decade: Mozambique, Tanzania, Nigeria, Mauritania, Congo, and Equatorial Guinea.
Global LNG demand is expected to nearly double by 2040.
All in all, those statistics point towards a pretty robust future, no?
The global natural gas business is exploding, with a clear trajectory of growth for at least the next few decades, backed by both contracts and new infrastructure. That infrastructure won’t be abandoned in 20 years, or 30, or 40. Look at coal, which was supposedly the fuel of a distant century, and global consumption of that stuff is at record levels.
Rapid gas development has been happening for at least the past 15 years; Russia’s antics have accelerated it in every part of the world where countries are trying to avoid consumption of Russian hydrocarbons.
Russia’s war simply accelerated some facets of what was happening regardless.
Hey, I get it though, the general population does not care about natural gas all that much, not until they pay a whopping utility bill anyway.
But aside from that, why is booming natural gas development a story worth making the average citizen pay attention?
The fact is they simply have to, because, as mentioned at the outset, the title of this article might be enough to send a good slice of our youth into the darkest of depression or the wildest of rebellion.
They – the youth of today – have been taught and terrorized and tormented that fossil fuel usage is accelerating us towards Armageddon. They have thunderously been assured that they have no future whatsoever unless hydrocarbon usage ceases immediately.
The news is full of stories like this: “As climate changes, climate anxiety rises in youth.” The article includes some horrifying stats: In a 2022 study of 10,000 people from around the world, “59 per cent of youth and young adults said they were very or extremely worried about climate change and more than 45 per cent said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.”
Kids have always been terrified of the weather, with good cause – when you’re ten years old, the thought of experiencing a flood or fire or tornado is fairly close to as bad as it gets.
Now, the narrative is vastly worthwhile for youth, because they’ve been told, hey kids, you know all those weather events that cause terror in your little hearts? Well, they’re getting worse, they’re going to be inevitable, and they’re YOUR FAULT. YOURS AND YOUR PARENTS AND ALL YOUR STUFF.
Actually, that’s not quite true – the kids are told that the actual culprit are the industries that provide the fuel that causes CO2 emissions. That includes the coal, oil and natural gas industries, lumped together as fossil fuels because it fits so much better on the chest of a villain’s costume than getting all hydrocarbon-technical.
But kids aren’t idiots. (You may well know an exception here or there; I won’t deny that they exist.). They know that the cushy lives most of them lead here in the West have to come from somewhere, that travel has a footprint, that the life they know includes a lot of consumables and throw-away crap and waste. On average they’re not Greta’s, and they’re also not Paris Hiltons.
But they are, as the youth poll above suggests, gravely concerned about the climate because almost every authority figure in their lives assures them they should be terrified, and that there is little hope of living an entire life to the standard they’ve known thus far.
They also can read, and all the natural gas stats quoted above are available for viewing online, anytime (some things are really hard to censor).
They can see how people live, and how people want to live, and how three-quarters of the world’s population would do anything to have the lifestyle we do in the West. They can see the amount of fuel burned every day to make their lives so comfortable. They can see the challenges of building out renewables as a replacement; if old enough, they have seen several decades worth of accelerating renewables spending, trillions of dollars around the world, while at the same time they can readily see that global demand for oil, natural gas, and even coal are all at all time record highs.
So what happens when some genuinely terrified yet curious teenager finds out that the whole world is rushing madly towards a fuel they’ve been told will kill them all? What are they supposed to do then?
Here’s a hopeful path forward.
Someone will start changing the narrative, pointing out the obvious that natural gas can reduce the emissions profile in many countries that currently burn far dirtier things. Africa currently relies to a sadly great degree on burning dung and wood; it’s not a big stretch to point out that natural gas will be superior.
Relatively simple (and achievable) pathways such as increased LNG fueling of big trucks will clean up emissions profiles of certain large industries like trucking.
On a larger scale, large natural gas consumers will start capturing and sequestering CO2 at scale, and natural gas combustion with CO2 sequestration by definition meets any sane person’s definition of low emissions energy.
One of the biggest current knocks against natural gas usage is methane leak emissions. A lot of progress is being made to rectify that issue; new technology is making leak-spotting easier, and at the end of the day, a leak is a leak – it can be fixed.
On the horizon are new technologies, new ideas with vast potential. One such is hydrogen created from natural gas at the point of use, a technology being pioneered by the likes of Innova Hydrogen, Aurora Hydrogen, Ekona Power, and Monolith Corp. This technology could dramatically change emissions profiles, and, crucially, what will be rocket fuel for this industry is the fact it can utilize much of the existing natural gas infrastructure.
It is profoundly absurd to try to envision an energy transition that does not maximize the existing system of millions of kms of pipelines and infrastructure, particularly when advocates of something else are proposing as a solution something that they have no clue as to how to build.
Wouldn’t it be far better to be filling kids’ heads with positivity, and constructiveness, and point out where we can make things work better, rather than scaring them into therapy and wiping out their hope for any sort of future?
Terry Etam is a columnist with the BOE Report, a leading energy industry newsletter based in Calgary. He is the author of The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity. You can watch his Policy on the Frontier session from May 5, 2022 here.