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Each time Tim Crossin turns on his gas fireplace to heat the modest home he shares with his partner, the avowed environmentalist "assuages" his climate guilt with a reminder that he is paying a premium for so-called "renewable" natural gas.

Unlike conventional natural gas, a fossil fuel extracted from underground deposits, this "renewable" gas is made using biomethane captured from landfills, food waste and manure pits. It is considered renewable because it is created by capturing methane — a potent greenhouse gas — emitted naturally when organic matter breaks down and transforming it into a fuel chemically identical to conventional natural gas.

"It's a way to support the biomethane industry," he explained. "I don't think we should be burning fossil fuels anymore. This gives me a moral argument to squash my guilt, basically."

But while the premium price offers Crossin climate solace, in practice, most of the gas that FortisBC Energy Inc., the provincial gas utility, supplies to his Comox, B.C., home still comes from fossil fuel deposits, not a landfill or biodigester. Crossin's gas is branded as "renewable" because he pays a premium to FortisBC, which then purchases the "renewable" designation from biomethane generated, sold and used as far afield as Ontario and the U.S.

This designation lets the company supplement the minimal amounts of B.C.-made biomethane running through its pipes with conventional natural gas that — on paper — is considered biomethane. It is a similar designation as carbon offset credits sold by airlines, which let customers offset their portion of a flight's greenhouse gas emissions by investing in emissions reduction projects elsewhere.

"They're buying not the (renewable natural gas) molecules themselves, but the environmental attributes of these molecules," explained Eoin Finn, a researcher with the environmental group My Sea to Sky. "It's fossil gas with a piece of paper attached saying: 'Hey, I'm really renewable.'"

In a statement to Canada's National Observer, FortisBC said it doesn't matter if the biomethane is not produced and used in B.C.

"Greenhouse gas emissions are a global issue and all climate action has a global impact. Wherever we source RNG from, it takes the place of conventional natural gas in the North American gas system, decarbonizing the gas system and decreasing net greenhouse gas emissions," FortisBC wrote.

When Canada's National Observer asked FortisBC whether an overall increase in natural gas use could negate the environmental benefits of using more biomethane — because the company could still use the same amount of conventional gas and top it off with biomethane — FortisBC said, "(We) purchase less conventional natural gas when we purchase RNG."

Each time Tim Crossin turns on his gas fireplace to heat the modest home he shares with his partner, the avowed environmentalist "assuages" his climate guilt with a reminder that he is paying a premium for so-called "renewable" natural gas. 

Finn sees this "paper energy" as nothing more than a ploy by FortisBC to continue supplying B.C. buildings with natural gas.

"It's total greenwashing," he said. Even the company's current renewable natural gas program, which only includes biomethane, relies heavily on gas that "never arrives (in B.C.) at all." The company's primary goal with its biomethane and renewable gas programs is not tackling climate change, he said, but "trying its best to preserve its business model" in the face of electrification.

Electricity generates fewer carbon emissions and, unlike gas, can be used both to heat and cool homes. As climate change threatens more extreme, hot weather, those dual functions are poised to make them more appealing than gas, he pointed out.

Recent years have seen municipalities across B.C. try to stop developers from putting natural gas pipes in new buildings in an effort to boost electricity use for heating. Most electricity in B.C. is generated by hydropower and generates far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gas.

Vancouver made headlines last year when it became one of the first Canadian jurisdictions to ban the use of natural gas in new residential buildings. Quebec implemented a similar rule late in 2021 to phase out fossil fuel-based heating systems.

Outside of Vancouver, which has its own charter, provincial laws make it impossible for other B.C. municipal governments to outright ban natural gas. To get around this restriction, municipal politicians have used bylaws to ban the use of conventional natural gas in new buildings. But because renewable natural gas does not come from fossil fuel deposits, it isn't covered by the rules, Finn explained.

Last January, FortisBC fought back against these municipal rules. The company submitted a proposal to the B.C. Utilities Commission for permission to sell 100 per cent renewable natural gas to every new building in the province. FortisBC also requested permission to expand the types of gas it can call "renewable" to include other gases, like so-called "blue" and "turquoise" hydrogen, which are both made from conventional natural gas. Hydrogen can be blended with natural gas to be used in homes. The proposal is still being assessed by the commission.

The changes are necessary because "federal, provincial and municipal … policies focused on reducing GHG emissions threaten the long-term viability of the gas delivery system," FortisBC wrote in legal filings to the commission. Mandates like the municipal bylaws banning conventional natural gas in new buildings "may cause customers to (stop)" using natural gas entirely unless the utility company can supply them with so-called "renewable" natural gas.

However, a close look at a key study led by the B.C. government and FortisBC that backs the company's proposal shows biomethane — the gas captured from landfills and biodigesters — will likely only ever account for a small fraction of the province's needs.

B.C. generates far less biomethane than is needed to meet demand. Currently, "the majority" of renewable natural gas sold in B.C. takes the form of credits generated from other companies selling biomethane outside the province, FortisBC told Canada's National Observer in a statement.

Research commissioned by FortisBC and the B.C. government found that biomethane from landfills and digesters could only ever account for a fraction of B.C.'s "renewable" gas supply. Chart by Envint Consulting and Canadian Biomass Energy Research for FortisBC, the B.C. Bioenergy Network and the Province of British Columbia

According to the study, FortisBC will need to expand what counts as "renewable" and "low-carbon" to rely on gas made from wood residue — also called "synthesis gas" — and so-called "blue" and "turquoise" hydrogen to meet the province's future demand for gas. Blue and turquoise hydrogen are made from conventional natural gas but are considered low-carbon gases in the provincial government's climate laws.

Proponents of blue and turquoise hydrogen say they have a smaller climate impact because producers can capture the greenhouse gas emissions linked to the fossil fuel at the moment of production, keeping them out of the atmosphere using carbon capture, utilization and storage technology that is still being developed. Hydrogen does not emit greenhouse gases when it burns.

In a statement, FortisBC noted: "Deep decarbonization will require … co-ordination across gas and electric systems with a focus on affordable resiliency." Studies done in B.C. and by the International Energy Agency "acknowledge that renewable and low-carbon gases, like hydrogen, are important to a lower-carbon energy future and could be one of the most expedient ways to effective rapid decarbonization," the company said.

Critics say the technologies still rely on fossil fuel extraction and their efficacy is uncertain. It is also unclear just how much the proposal will lead to tangible changes in the source of gas molecules flowing through B.C. pipes, said Finn, the environmental researcher.

Back in Comox, Crossin, the environmentalist, echoed Finn's concern. While using FortisBC's renewable natural gas helped assuage his guilt over burning fossil fuels, it was likely a temporary measure. It won't be long, he said, before he ditches the gas fireplace and "gets a heat pump."

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In Québec, just as in BC, we have the same problem with the provincial gas utility called ÉNERGIR (formely known as Gaz-Métro). We see a sustained advertising campaign about RNG ( in French, GNR or gaz naturel renouvelable). One ad is particularly misleading; when a man taking a shower runs out of hot water, he howls for members of his family to pour some food scraps in the digester; miraculously, he has instant hot water!!!!

On numerous occasions we have tried to find out the percentage of RNG in the pipes of ÉNERGIR versus classical natural gas and unconventional (fracked) gas. From various sources, it would appear that at least 70% of the its gas is fracked gas (just as dirty as coal!!); the balance is classical gas and RNG. For the moment only about 1% of the gas is renewable. see
1] 1] https://www.energir.com/fr/a-propos/nos-energies/gaz-naturel/gaz-naturel...
and
2] https://www.ledevoir.com/economie/770944/energir-rate-la-cible-de-1-de-gnr

Whether in Québec, in BC or elsewhere, RNG is pure greenwashing by the fossil fuel industry. And yes, I agree with the metaphor. RNG is as glamorous as lipstick on a pig!

'"federal, provincial and municipal … policies focused on reducing GHG emissions threaten the long-term viability of the gas delivery system," FortisBC wrote'

Um, yeah, that's kind of the point. Sorry guys, you have to go out of business for the planet to survive. Bye bye!

Renewable Natural Gas????? ; HHHhahahahahalll...Hahhah.
Every time we renew it.............does it still spew GHG??????

Thought so.

There is no such thing as "renewable" natural gas. It is called biogas. The only people using the term "renewable" natural gas are natural gas companies and their allies to confuse the general public. It's not "masterful" greenwashing; it is obvious greenwashing.

If methane would otherwise have escaped entirely into the atmosphere, doing far more damage than if burned, it's a positive to capture and burn it. Deliberately creating it by digesting organics is a loss.

Even green hydrogen is SOME loss, compared to electrification, because H2 is also a GHG, and some will escape. But we'll probably have to suck up green H2 to keep international shipping and air travel going. No other colour of H2 is really a win.

All these technologies - save green H2 for long-distance industrial travel - are just waiting for that Next Big Battery promised on 100 YouTube videos, to become real. Batteries good enough to kill off anything less than total electrification are showing up in labs - if they can economically manufacture one with a long lifespan and all that, it's over for any kind of methane.

It's astonishing it's still legal to put in new buildings with anything but electrification and a heat pump. No more gas mains in new-built neighbourhoods. That's a stroke-of-the-pen decision, but of course Fortis will fight that to the last drop.