/ 20 August 2021

‘Government must take its foot off the new gas Bill’

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Doubt: The Yamal LNG gas plant in Russia. Critics of South Africa’s Gas Amendment Bill argue that it supports fossil fuel development and drives carbon emissions. (Maxim Zmeyev/AFP/Getty Images)

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe has failed to consider the implications of the Gas Amendment Bill on the climate emergency, environmental groups say.

The bill, which seeks to modernise South Africa’s 20-year-old Gas Act, promotes the orderly development of the gas industry, provides for socioeconomic and environmentally sustainable development and facilitates gas infrastructure development and investment.

But according to two environmental organisations, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) and groundWork, the bill’s support for fossil fuel development will have “far-reaching implications” in South Africa and globally, displacing livelihoods in affected areas and driving an increase in carbon emissions.

“It is the government’s constitutional imperative to protect South Africans against the impacts of climate change,” the organisations said in their recent submission on the draft law.

 “This includes investing in abandoning fossil fuels and not putting frameworks in place that facilitate or accelerate new fossil fuel development such as gas infrastructure.”

Energy economist Lungile Mashele said there is support for regional gas through the Southern Africa Development Community gas master plan.

And in South Africa “we have allocated 3 000MW [megawatts] to gas technology in the Integrated Resources Plan 2019”.

Gas is not clean, Mashele said. “The benefit of gas is its flexibility. It has a quick ramp-up rate — you can go from off to full capacity in seconds. 

“This is useful if you’re pursuing a renewable fleet.”

The intermittency associated with renewables is what gives gas its competitive advantage, she said.

“Regarding South Africa’s transition to renewable sources, power plants will be required that are flexible and cheap to match renewables. Gas provides this solution. In addition, gas sorts out the voltage stability issues that also come with renewables.”

Gas “enables renewables”, she said, adding, “It’s estimated that 1 000MW of gas supports 6 000MW of renewables.”

Gas has historically been considered a “bridge fuel” that is cleaner because of its lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal or oil.

But, said the CER and groundWork, “Liquified natural gas (LNG) is neither clean nor particularly low in emissions. In addition, the massive investments in new infrastructure to support this industry — including pipelines, liquefaction facilities, export terminals, and tankers — creates new fossil fuel dependence, making the transition to actual low-carbon and no-carbon energy even more difficult.” 

The extraction, processing and transportation of gas emits greenhouse gases, including large amounts of methane from leaks and intentional releases at wells, pipelines and storage and processing facilities. 

Although methane does not persist in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, its effect on climate is more than 80 times stronger in a 20-year time frame and 28 times stronger over a 100-year time frame. 

Methane is the second-biggest driver of climate change. 

A new study by General Electric on South Africa found that the accelerated and strategic use of renewables and gas power could “change the trajectory for climate change, enabling substantive reductions in emissions quickly, while in parallel continuing to advance technologies for low or near zero carbon power generation”.

The World LPG Association says LPG is a low-carbon and low-polluting fuel recognised by governments around the world for the contribution it can make towards improved indoor and outdoor air quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. 

“In many applications and regions LPG is among the most attractive energy options for minimising greenhouse gas emissions,” the association said.

But groups such as the nonprofit organisation, The Green Connection, are opposed to the further development of the oil and piped gas industries.

“We are concerned that the bill will undermine environmental protection and want to see polluters having their licenses revoked,” said its strategic lead, Liziwe McDaid. 

“We also think that any proposed legislation should factor in the climate crisis and cater for the future gas economy, like biofuels and hydrogen.”

Gas and LNG have a role to play in the transition from coal, according to Shridaran Pillay, the Africa director for the Eurasia Group, a risk advisory service.

“I do not think that renewables in South Africa could be scaled to a level where they would provide the same opportunity to replace base load generation in the way that gas can at this stage, primarily due to the scalability of energy storage solutions at this stage.”

Gas, said Pillay, is seen as a bridge to transitioning South Africa away from coal power while allowing the country to maintain its goals of economic generation through industrialisation.

“The biggest problem with renewables solely lies in the storage versus demand problem and addressing that at scale, as has been seen in California. Gas is seen as a good bridging fuel due to the efficiency of new generation turbines while the issue of South Africa looking to play a bigger role in the global hydrogen economy should not be overlooked.” 

Ultimately, she said, it “cannot be argued” that gas is cleaner than renewables, but for now and until the cost of energy storage drops, gas remains a viable option for an economy like South Africa.

Pillay added that creating a just transition away from coal that supports communities is a critical issue that will need to be well thought out by social partners and government.  “The coal economy ultimately supports provincial economies such as Mpumalanga. The government and the ANC will, in this regard, have to make difficult decisions and answer tough questions from constituencies in these provinces if it is to move forward.”