Gas is ‘not a low-carbon fuel’, UK watchdog rules

23rd September 2019 by Emma Goring

Equinor should not have implied gas was environmentally friendly energy source

UK regulators have issued a warning to Norwegian energy giant Equinor over advertisements on the London Underground that implied gas is a “low-carbon energy” source. It is the first time the watchdog has made such an assessment.

The UK Advertising Standards Authority, ASA, told the Norwegian state-backed energy major not to use the advertisement again after a complaint was submitted about a poster seen in Westminster tube station.

The watchdog said the company had agreed not to use the ad again and will make changes if they decide to run a similar campaign in an email to Murray Worthy, senior campaigner at Global Witness, the NGO, who lodged the complaint.

ASA added in the email, seen by the FT: “They [Equinor] said that their intention was only to refer to wind power as low carbon but acknowledged that the ad might not have been interpreted in that way.”

The poster, with the Equinor logo at the top, said in big print against a backdrop of a coastline and blue sky: “We’re the low carbon energy just over the horizon”. It then said in smaller print below: “Equinor is Britain’s biggest supplier of imported gas — and a key provider of UK wind power too.”

Equinor said they had received notification from the regulator in an email about the complaint towards “one advertisement, part of an already concluded broader campaign”. The campaign was global.

The regulator also said in the email that the complaint was resolved without a ruling by the watchdog’s council, according to Equinor. The regulator said separately it would not release details on the case until next Wednesday.

The resolution delivers a blow to attempts by fossil fuel companies to portray gas to politicians and the public as environmentally friendly and part of the solution to climate change.

Mr Worthy pointed to evidence from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, saying that gas has the third-highest carbon dioxide emissions intensity of commercially available technologies.

“There is no gas that can be considered ‘low carbon’ in the same way that wind energy can be considered ‘low carbon’,” he said. “These companies need to stop trying to mislead politicians.”

Carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas are about 40 per cent lower than coal and about 20 per cent less than oil, according to the International Energy Agency, but the fuel still releases about 40 times more CO2 than nuclear or wind power.

However, some energy experts argue that the comparison with renewables is unfair since gas, even if not low carbon itself, is needed as a baseload “bridge fuel” in the transition to cleaner energy.

“In the medium term, gas can contribute to a carbon reduction strategy in some countries,” said Jim Watson, director of the UK Energy Research Centre. “But in the UK we have been using gas as a transition fuel since the 1970s. It has stopped being a solution and will become a problem without carbon capture.”

Demand for gas has increased by 50 per cent in the past three decades in the UK, with two-fifths of electricity produced from natural gas last year. The fuel helped replace coal and reduce emissions by 38 per cent across that period.

Equinor supplies 20 per cent of Britain’s gas from fields in the North Sea and is investing in low-carbon technologies, operating three wind power farms off the UK and developing carbon capture and storage technology.

This is not the first time that ASA has dealt with fossil fuel companies promoting the environmental credentials of gas, as the ad watchdog banned ExxonMobil in 2008 from claiming that it is “one of the world’s cleanest fuels” in a TV advertisement and ruled in 2018 that Ineos could not claim that gas produced by fracking has 10 per cent less emissions than imported gas.