Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

This piece originally appeared on FireDogLake.com.

Climate activists cheered President Barack Obama in a speech on Tuesday when he announced his plans to tackle carbon-intensive coal-fired power plants, both at home, via stronger EPA restrictions on CO2 emissions, and abroad, by ending public finance for coal. A new document leaked from within the World Bank reveals the Bank may echo the plans outlined by President Obama, and intends to stop lending for new coal plants and coal mines and ramp up its investments in natural gas globally.

The earth on fire, climate change worsening, as World Bank phases out of coal and toward The Bank’s document claims that “natural gas… has half the carbon footprint of coal at the point of combustion.” The key point in this sentence is “at the point of combustion.” It is before and after the point of combustion of gas where the climate concern lies. A recent study authored by ecologist Robert Howarth of Cornell University suggests that unconventional gas, produced via hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” may actually be worse than coal, in terms of its full life-cycle carbon footprint. When burned, methane transforms to CO2. But methane leakage represents about 8 percent of the natural gas fracked and transported in the United States, says Howarth, twice that of conventional gas. Methane, over a 20-year time span, is 105 times more potent than CO2, according to Howarth, making fracked gas worse than coal.

The document, allegedly to be discussed by the World Bank’s board of directors on July 19, 2013, states: “The WBG [World Bank Group] will cease providing financial support for greenfield coal power generation projects, except in rare circumstances…The WBG will continue to finance investments in various industrial and commercial processes—such as steel, cement, and other manufacturing operations—while seeking gains in energy efficiency and employment of best practices.” The leaked Bank document also suggests it will consider financing coal projects where carbon capture and storage technology is in place.

In addition to scaling up its engagement in promotion of “unconventional”—or so-called “fracked” natural gas– the leaked document suggests the World Bank is committed “to scaling up engagement in hydropower after largely withdrawing from it for a time.”