Even in the best of worlds the climate argument for gas is strained.
The Texas fracking fields under Republican leadership are not the best of worlds.
Last week, the board guiding San Antonio’s City-owned utility, CPS Energy, passed a resolution to get out of the coal business by 2030. This vote comes only four years after powering down San Antonio’s “Dirty” JT Deely coal plant for the last time. Soon the coal trains will stop rolling in city. Local air quality will improve, which in recent years has moved into non-attainment with federal standards. But in spite of promises to the positive, it’s uncertain how much—or even if—this energy shift will reduce our contribution to global warming.
At the current rate of methane leakage in the Permian Basin, CPS Energy’s planned coal-to-gas conversion may not only bring zero climate benefit, it could potentially make our emissions worse. And that’s a problem for a city that needs to collapse its climate emissions by five percent per year but is hitting less than 2 percent.
Under normal circumstances, CPS Energy’s vote to kick the coal habit and decommission Spruce Unit 1 in 2028 would be a momentous moment. But the decision to convert Spruce Unit 2 from coal to gas in 2027 complicates that.
Consider these compounding challenges: 1. high leak rates of gas—methane, basically, a far more potent greenhouse gas in the near-term than coal’s voluminous CO2; 2. a war on low-carbon energy options being led by the Republican leadership; 3. a vacillating US EPA that is retreating on pledges to crack down in the Permian but reportedly about to ramp up new efforts to that would be particularly punishing for coal.
Members of San Antonio’s City Council, the CPS Board of Trustees, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, himself a CPS board member member by dint of his elected status, have voiced support for “cleaner” gas options in this future shift. But what those options may be, and how reliable an emerging certification process for “low-leak” options could even be, given our state’s radically anti-regulatory environment, are to be seen.
“CPS Energy has yet to purchase natural gas that is sourced using best practices to reduce leak rates,” said D1 San Antonio City Councilmember Mario Bravo. “I regularly ask [CPS CEO] Rudy Garza what progress they have made and he tells me they are in conversations with some suppliers exploring the issue.”
Bravo worked for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund from 2015 to 2022,* frequently on the issue of gas. In 2020, he publicly resigned as facilitator of ongoing dialogues between the utility’s leadership and representatives of the local environmental community, accusing former CEO Paula Gold-Williams of not meeting in “good faith.”
Last week’s vote, which sets sail on 4,200MW of new gas between now and 2047, was not premised upon any purchasing agreements other than good faith understandings to try our best.
CPS claims this conversion will cut the utility’s emissions by 40 percent by 2030. But here’s the scary bit: To even remain on parity with coal in the area of climate emissions, the state political director for the Environmental Defense Fund says that gas supplies must be secured with a “loss rate” of no more than 2.8 percent. Currently, the Permian Basin, likely the world’s largest extraction zone, is estimated to leak as much as 3.5 percent of its gas, according to EDF.
Colin Leyden, Texas political director for the EDF, told Deceleration:
“We don’t like to talk about it because it’s not an argument we really like to get into, but that’s the truth,” Leyden said. “If you are buying gas that is somewhere between 3 and 5 percent [leak rate] you really, really have to question if you are getting any climate benefit.”
In his comments before the vote, Mayor Ron Nirenberg urged the community to focus on the milestone commitment to close the coal plant. But this is a monstrous looming question upon which to close that plant. Not only can it not be assumed that this coal-to-gas conversion will help us hit our 2030 climate reduction goals of 40 percent as promised (while worsening our shot at 2040 and 2050), but it begs the question of whether there will be any benefit at all.
(Deceleration has asked CPS for information about current gas contracts and if concerns about leak rates have ever been a factor in purchasing and will update this story when that information comes in.)
Problematizing this critical voyage to slash planet-warming gases is also the Republican lawmakers in Austin, who, as columnist Chris Tomlinson catalogued last week, want to not only penalize electric car shoppers and wind energy development in Texas but any utility that uses any power source but gas.
Those who have been around climate politics more than a minute, you already know EDF as one of the more gas tolerant of the “big green” environmental nonprofits. Due to that enduring belief that gas may yet play a positive role in a transition to cleaner energy sources, the EDF is also more active than most in the research of gas impacts and worth listening to for that reason. I want to share Leyden’s remarks within the context of our fuller Friday conversation.
The following has been slightly edited for clarity and length.
Q&A with EDF’s Colin Leyden
Deceleration: With this vote to bring on board 4,200MW of gas by 2047 and with so much interest in finding “cleaner” gas supplies, could you describe the distance between what is technically possible to reduce gas climate emissions compared to what we’re actually doing?
Colin Leyden: There’s an honest debate around if gas can be fixed in any way, would be the blunt way to put that. We [at EDF] continue to think that low-emission gas can exist under the right regulatory framework. We’ve seen it in other places like the Netherlands. Even comparing the Marcellus Shale, which is a gas play, versus the Permian, there’s a huge disparity in the emission rates. There is third-party certification that is growing. You’ve got LNG facilities like Cheniere, who are really seriously taking a look at that. These companies, Project Canary is one, we’ve always been skeptical in their ability to have the data and their ability to certify that in any kind of credible way. But I do think they are getting better because I think the monitoring data is getting better.
You mean we’re able to check their math or they have better tools?
It’s less of a black box. Like they’re being a little more open. And the technology is improving. We’re not out there as an organization endorsing any of these groups and saying, ‘Yeah, this is the one.’ But if you are in this reality where CPS is going to build this gas plant … I do think they ought to have requirements for all of the gas that they buy. CPS was part of this coalition of gas consumers to try to put pressure on upstream oil and gas. CPS joined that organization and it was mostly utilities trying to put pressure on upstream providers to lower their emissions. So CPS does actually have a history of working on that issue. But that ought to become policy at an organization like CPS. There’s plenty of models out there for that. Just look at the Oil & Gas Methane Partnership 2.0 (OGMP 2.0), whose companies have made commitments on the oil and gas that they’re going to be producing, the methane standards on there would be a guide. Or even paying a premium for a third-party certification for the gas. I realize this is not satisfactory to the environmental community, but better to have it then no have it, would be my thought.
We’re now in a situation where barring some extreme circumstance this [coal-to-gas conversion] is coming. I hear that.
I don’t know if the EU has passed those [gas purchasing] standards, but it’s something they are looking at doing. Japan is going to look at it. South Korea is going to look at it. For the rest of the world that is having a rational conversation around climate change and the resources they are using this is just going to be a topic that grows. And the oil and gas industry understand that’s the pressure they’re under from their consumers—that’s particularly true on the LNG export market, which is really where the Texas gas supply is headed. This pressure is only going to grow, and there’s no reason CPS couldn’t do the same.
The public health aspect of this has come up many times, how would you characterize the end of the Spruce and the emergence of new gas.
It does remain true that on the emissions side, at the point source, it is 50 percent less CO2 and 50 percent less NOX [nitrogen oxides] and SOX [sulphur oxides] when you move from coal to gas. That remains true. The thing on the CO2 side is, ‘Yeah, what’s the methane emissions from the source and how does that impact that overall climate benefit?’ If you’re getting your gas from the Permian, that loss rate from the Permian is somewhere between—and I think even a lot of the industry accepts this—it’s at least 3% loss rate broadly across the base, sometimes higher depending on what’s happening in the field. And that means that your conversion from coal to gas doesn’t do much on the climate side.
Wow. At that loss rate we’re at an equilibrium?
I think the equilibrium is 2.8 percent loss rate. We don’t like to talk about it because it’s not an argument we really like to get into but that’s the truth. If you are buying gas that is somewhere between 3 and 5 percent you really really have to question if you are getting any climate benefit. I think the original paper had it at 3.2 percent but that got revised.
It sounds like you’re saying, one: there may be no climate benefit [from this conversion], and two: even on the industry’s best behavior, how do we even know? It seem like such as dangerous pursuit. How would you describe the trust issue with the industry?
I think that’s the big question. How much a quote-unquote partner can the oil and gas industry be on these issues, right? I think that there are companies that are producing low-emission gas. And I also think that there are companies who understand we are in an energy transition and at some point their oil and gas portion of their business is going to be a very small part of it. But on the question of trust, I think it’s very difficult to have trust in the oil and gas industry in a state like Texas where you have a regulatory environment in which the worst actors are often the ones guiding public regulatory policy.
No one can claim surprise at gas’s threat to our climate goals. Here’s that referenced 2012 paper (again per EDF) that shows sourcing gas with a leak rate of 3.5 actually cancels out any climate benefit of the conversion.
CPS Energy executives, most clearly Benny Ethridge, vice president of energy supply, have stated repeatedly that they are lining up these gas resources for ultimate flexibility, as Mayor Nirenberg and others have requested.
Here’s Ethridge speaking on that recently:
“I think this is really going to be a regular discussion we’re going to have for quite some time. What I will tell you is that people are making inroads right now into hydrogen technology, they’re talking about renewable fuels. These new gas engines today that we can purchase are convertible to different fuels by changing out the fuel systems. So they could be concerted down the road if hydrogen became a viable option here.”
Additionally, as CPS prepares to also shutter a number of old gas plants, Ethridge touted the benefit of new units that will allow them to run for shorter durations, which would (in theory) allow CPS to capture more benefits from their renewables.
“These new engines we’re talking about, you start when you need them. You run them up, and then you shut them down. We’ll actually burn less natural gas with these new engines then we do with the older machines,” Ethridge said.
But January’s adopted resolution avoids entangling commitments about any particulars of gas contracts or leak rates. It’s, again, left as a matter of trust to a mayor seeking his last term in office and a utility board that shifts every few years.
If the bells of San Fernando Cathedral haven’t been pealing in rapture across the climate justice community over this vote, it is because the pathway adopted to replace Spruce’s 1,400MW capacity has been premised to this massive new investment in gas. Gas, which is essentially methane, is more than 80 times more potent in the near-term as a greenhouse gas as CO2 emitted by coal.
The rhetorical dance of climate awareness that has coincided with this vote has been a magnificent and terrifying thing to behold. Because here’s one other thing: We didn’t need to be here at all. In fact, even the CPS Advisory Committee was strongly split on their recommendation (See Deceleration’s Cheat Sheet on the RAC vote).
In the spirit of pointing toward solutions, Deceleration this week reached out to Mark Jacobson, the director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere/Energy Program, and the author of numerous books on renewables and energy transition—including the plainly titled, “100 Percent Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything.”
Referencing his 2021 paper, “Zero Air Pollution and Zero Carbon,” that provides a roadmap for all 50 US states to meet their energy needs with renewable sources, storage, and energy efficiency, his response was concise:
“It is a no-brainer to move Texas entirely away from fossil fuels and toward 100% renewables. Batteries are far more reliable than natural gas for keeping the grid stable and have been proven effective everywhere they have been used,” Jacobson wrote Deceleration.
Jacobson said his team examined grid stability in Texas using only wind, water, and solar power (with storage and strong energy efficiency programs). They found grid stability, more than a million jobs created, thousands of lives saved from improved air quality, collapsing energy demand from deep efficiency investments, and more.
(Here’s the paper’s key findings on Texas.)
The CPS vote (and RAC’s thin-majority recommendation before that) can perhaps best be explained not by lack of technical options but by residing fears post 2021 Winter Storm Uri of reliance on the state grid operators. Modeling by CPS consultant Charles River Associates (which the San Antonio Current this week smartly linked to a history of feeding climate obstruction) suggests that the more renewables-robust options would require CPS to purchase power off the grid more frequently in extreme weather events.
That fear has inspired CPS (and the RAC) to chart a course along the climate shoals rather than venturing into a truly climate-resilient future as mapped by Jacobson and many others. Since state residents (and utilities) were put on the hook for tens of billions in storm-related costs and likely billions more from gas company price-gouging, these aren’t unwarranted fears.
On the day of the vote, Mayor Nirenberg all but called ERCOT reliance a red line.
However, Nirenberg was employing wishful thinking when he suggested, minutes before this vote, that we could get to 2028 and yet find some way to pull out of some of the most expensive gas purchases.
“We need to slow down the big expenses into gas potentially,” he said. “When we are hitting that fork in the road in 2028-ish in having to choose whether or not we convert Spruce 2 to actual combined cycle gas or maybe there is technology that we don’t even have to worry about gas at that point. I want to leave that option on the table.”
Remember, first, that the conversion of Spruce 2 happens in 2027. That Deely’s closure took about seven years navigate. That Garza said recently that his team can tackle Spruce in five years. This is a years-long project, not a pivot of months. The conversion, by this vote, is happening, whatever rhetorical flourish or qualifications capped the conversation.
Nirenberg recognized the dissonance of our recent past when CPS brought Spruce’s Unit 2 online in 2010 as one of the nation’s youngest coal plants (even as the rest of the utility world was already phasing out coal). Between 2012 and 2021, according to the US EIA, nearly 10,000MW of coal capacity was being shut down every year, primarily on economic grounds. But he failed to see the stir of echos in this vote so evident to the rest of us.
“It’s so ironic with CPS because they ended up with Spruce 2 because the last time they had this sort of resource question it was like gas was super expensive so they went with coal,” Leyden said. “Their timing seems so bad. They are going to come across the same issue committing to a gas plant, where who knows what the next five years is going to look like?”
We didn’t learn much new this week at the vote itself. Board Chair Willis Mackey dismissed planned presentations from staff and the Rate Advisory Committee Chair Reed Williams as information we’d all heard before. It wasn’t climate activists dragged from the room in protest but a ranting pro-coal enthusiast dismissing other speakers as a bunch of communists. There were no modifications made to the pathway recommended at the December meeting, in spite of Francine Romero’s request then for more information about the potential for stronger energy efficiency programs to offset the need for some of this gas. Trustee John Steen voted no on the motion, but used his time to harp on the utility’s economic condition.
There was, however, much interest on the Board’s part for recasting this vote as portending a future so full of flexibility that it became nearly inconsequential.
Romero said the energy plan was “more like paths and tunnels.”
Nirenberg said it is “not so much a pin on a map but a process we are setting in place.”
Garza committed to “constant reevaluation.”
But at the end of the day, we have a lot of gas on the way. Regulators and state lawmakers aren’t overly concerned about our investment continuing the feed the climate crisis. If the gas landscape can clean up its act, a big ‘if,’ that may depend on purchasing power of blocs like the European Union who are only entangling themselves in future fights over indigenous land rights.
So much about that process going forward is beyond our control as a city. But this process was fully ours. And we stepped in it.
Deceleration had hoped that the RAC recommendation would be the start of a community conversation. But it turned out to be the end of one. What comes next will be difficult. Climate gains are still possible, but they are not at all certain.
Generation, By the Numbers
Board Resolution on Our Generation Future
[NOTE: As of this time, Deceleration’s is the only record of the mayor’s comments. The CPS livestream failed before Nirenberg’s turn at the mic. We were told by CPS communications: “The team has continued to attempt retrieval of the missing video footage but has not been successful.” It is unclear if there is an audio record. So future historians: You can watch the first two hours of this vote via CPS here. Deceleration, which was shooting mainly for our own internal use suffered from a previously undiagnosed faulty mic jack, is sharing much of the remaining footage by request here. We will never again feel weird filming a meeting supposedly being recorded by the utility or City.]
* Bravo was originally incorrectly identified as a current employee of EDF.
Like What You’re Seeing? Become a patron for as little as $1 per month. Sign up for our environmental justice newsletter Deceleration in Depth here or our weekly Happening events here. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes or Sticher. Share this story with others.