Is Shale Gas worse than coal?

I came across this video (55 min’s long!) the other night in which the Cornell university scientists Bob Howarth, Rene Santoro, and Tony Ingraffea present the evidence behind their much quoted paper on the carbon footprint of Shale Gas. This paper (summary of the study  here, news article here) suggesting that Shale gas drilling is not the clean green fuel of the future. In fact it may have a worse carbon footprint than coal. As the two scientists, a pairing of an former petroleum geologists and an expert on carbon footprinting, demonstrate much of this is due to leaks of methane during the drilling and fracturing process (for more info this blogger’s page here has a nice wee summary). As you can see in this presentation, contrary to the propaganda you may have heard from the gas industry  they are not a pair of hippies involved in some sort of half baked plot to destroy civilisation and freeze auntie Betsy to death come next fall, quite the contrary!

Now you might well say, well so what? So some gas leaks away during drilling, that’s the oil company’s problem. Well no, methane is an extremely potent Greenhouse gas. How potent is subject to debate (see here) but a figure of 70-60 times the GWP of CO2 over 20 years and 25-20 times it over a century, means that any significant amount of methane leaking into the atmosphere is potentially bad. Much of the effects of methane are short term, hence why you see two sets of numbers above, one for 20 years and the other for 100 years. Methane generally sticks around for around 20 years before being absorbed back into the biosphere, while it typically takes 100 years or more for carbon dioxide to be re-absorbed.

Gas Flares in the night, high noise and coughing locals not included!

While it might be possible to limit some of these methane emissions with tighter regulations, for example requiring the industry to do much more capture of the gas and where storage on site is dangerous, flaring of leaking methane (yes this generates Greenhouse gases but not nearly as much as realising the stuff directly into the atmosphere), but they can’t catch it all. Furthermore, flaring while it solves the methane leak problem creates other problems. Anyone fancy a couple of 100 dB flaring tower in your backyard? And there’s all the other “stuff” that will be burning with the methane, some of it known carcinogens. Indeed in many countries it’s actually illegal to flare off gas like this. And not releasing the gas in some way, of course creates major health and safety issues. We might end up trading less methane emissions for more dead drilling rig workers.

Our scientists also conservatively estimate 1.4- 3.6% of methane gas produced in the US leaks out of the pipes. The latter is a bit of problem for conventional natural gas production too as again Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Worse still, this study sort of knocks the idea of CCS on the head. Most of the carbon footprint of Natural gas appears to be upstream rather than at the power station (or boiler for those of us with gas central heating). By contrast most of coal’s greenhouse gas footprint appears to indeed be at the power station. Up until now the logic has been that CCS would always be better done with gas than coal. Howarth et al’s paper suggests the opposite might be the case, thought I would note neither of them are advocating more coal fired power stations, they’re just scientists trying to give us the facts!

One issue that comes across in this video is that this was a largely paper based study, an accounting exercise, while I was under the impression, from media reports that I had read, that they had actually undertaken measurements. This is worrying, as paper based studies have a habit of being wrong. As the scientists openly admit the data they are basing all of this on is not of the best quality, thought they compensate for this fact by trying to be conservative and use “low ball” numbers rather than higher ones. Thus it could be that shale gas, or natural gas in general isn’t such a bad boy after all (I suspect that will be the line you’ll get from the Gas industry). Indeed if you watch the film above to the end you’ll see a few comments of that nature (oh, the joy’s of scientific debate!). For example, there’s the question, well if we went through a similar accounting exercise with coal, what would be the results (Howarth et al reckon it might come out a bit higher, but not that much higher). Then there’s the question of cycle efficiency (see my post for the UK on this topic), the majority of gas in the US is used for power generation (at 33-40% efficiency) while the bulk of gas is used for heat generation (80-90% efficiency), although increasingly gas is being used for power generation, and indeed with no serious commitment to renewables and a likely future drop in American nuclear capacity much of its electricity will be coming from gas in the future, with efficiencies of 40-55% typical for a new plant (i.e a little less than half the cycle efficiency). There’s also talk of using Natural gas to power cars (typical efficiency of 25-30%, i.e 3-4 times more gas needed for 1 unit of useful energy used and thus 3-4 times the emissions of CO2 downstream).

 But given how deliberately conservative in the estimates these scientists were, the opposite is more likely, i.e that they have in fact grossly underestimated the carbon footprint of shale gas. And when I say conservative I mean ignoring things like accidents, the drillers striking shallow gas pockets, etc. or indeed methane leaks seeping up from the ground into people’s water supply (which they didn’t even mention in this presentation, although the evidence of it is plain to see here) or the fact the industry is so desperate to stake claim to wells they’ve been drilling wells and then capping them before production facilities were in place. Obviously Howarth et al were excluding factors such as the above as they are difficult to quantify – shale gas could be many times much worse than we think!

So what now? First of all we need to get some hard data. There are too many if’s and but’s and maybe’s as regards Shale Gas. A monitoring programme of methane emissions (and ground water pollution) would seem sensible…..unless you work for the gas industry of course! I seriously doubt the gas industry is going to simply roll over and allow such measures, not least because I suspect they’ve long known that Shale gas is a bit of a bad boy (if they didn’t why not release those Dick Cheney energy cabal meeting documents… from 10 years ago! If shale gas doesn’t pollute ground water why are shale gas drillers exempt from the clean water act?). The last thing the industry wants is somebody stumbling in and taking away the punchbowl just when the party’s getting going….I mean what do you think government regulators are there for? ;O

Beyond the US, the French are already planning to ban domestic drilling for Shale gas and are muttering about an EU wide ban. I suspect this is more motivated by a French desire to protect their nuclear industry (see my thoughts on that here) than a sudden conversation of “Tricky” Nickie Sarkozy to environmentalism. It’s also probably going a little too far. We need to quantify the environmental impact of Shale gas, so some limited drilling under tight government monitoring (with a clear understanding that the government will reserve its right to pull the plug if things turn out to be as bad as the critics say) would seem to me to be a sensible course of action. An outright ban will just mean more gas imports from Russia in the short term. That said, the UK governments policy of rolling over to the industry seems even more ill advised than the French policy. The UK government has announced support for Shale gas drilling to go ahead, announcing it the same day Obama’s in town….call me conspiratorial but was this case of someone trying to bury unpopular news? And also, again call me a conspiracy theory nut, but I find it a bit oddly coincidental that Chris Huhme the environment secretary being embroiled in a “scandal” over speeding points  just when he’s looking at making the nuclear industry stick to its “no subsidy” promise and also starts asking questions about Shale gas. A coincidence I presume……just like it was a coincidence that a pair of journalists ambushed Vince Cable when he was about to reject Rupert Murdoch’s BSB merger.

During the First World War, Clemenceau said that War was too important to be left up to the generals. I would say that in our day and age shale gas is too important to be left up to the gas industry. At the risk of sounding like a socialist, I think we need to bring Shale gas development, if it’s going to go ahead, back into the public domain. Private companies do the drilling but governments put up the capital and manage the project, and reserves its right to pull the plug if necessary. If Bob Howarth and Co. are wrong, Shale gas will help take the edge of peak oil (only a bit mind!) and can be used as a transition fuel while we build up our renewable capacity.

That said, I would note that the projected output of Shale gas is often drastically overstated. According to the DOE (see here) they expect shale gas extraction to be 12 Bcf/d by 2020 or roughly 87 mtoe. Current US primary energy consumption is hovering around 2,200 mtoe (see here) so shale gas can, at most, meet 4% of total US energy needs…..where does the other 96% coming from? And I would caution, we’re comparing 2010 consumption rates to 2020 production rates, plus we are ignoring a whole host of other factors. Such as the fact that the number one usage of Gas in the UK is for home heat generation (again, see my post here) while our primary demand for gas in the future will be electricity or transportation fuels (remembering what I said about cycle efficiencies, i.e we’d need twice the gas for electricity generation, 3-4 times it for transportation applications). In short Shale gas is great news if you’re a shareholder in Halliburton….or a lawyer specializing in environmental class action lawsuits ;O but not much else.

But if Howarth et al are right, and the balance of probability is that they are, then embarking on a path of mass shale gas development is a really bad idea as it will cause a very sudden spike in global warming right when we need it the least. Fortunately, methane is a sort lived agent in the atmosphere so if it occurs, we can easily cut down this sudden warming trend by just pulling the plug on Shale gas projects and within 20 years we’ll see a drop in warming rates. Of course, given that by this future date as much as 40% of US domestic gas production could well be coming from Shale gas, turning around and shutting it all down is going to be somewhat drastic. There is a not unlikely risk in such a scenario that many major energy companies would go to the wall and be filing for bankruptcy shortly there after.

Now while I realise there are some people on this blog who would be delighted to see the CEO’s of BP and Halliburton signing on at the dole office one rainy Monday morning (occupation: Destroyer of worlds, Expected salary: the Blood sweat and tears of baby seals, Where are you prepared to work? Anywhere warm, Brazil, Mexico, Libya, Hell….), but let’s be realistic here. A collapse of any nations energy industry would be disastrous, we’re talking about old grannies freezing to death, energy shortages, factory shutdowns, empty supermarket shelves, rolling blackouts, chaos, very pleased looking evangelical preachers ;O , etc. Many major banks and pension funds are heavily invested in the energy industry and a collapse of energy companies could well bring down many major financial institutions. While we can hum and haw about whether governments were right to bail out the banks (I say they should have at least let a few fail to scare the rest straight) there is no question we would have to (hold our noses and) bail out the energy industry in this situation, the consequences are just too dire to consider any alternative. Go look at the financial numbers for BP or Exxon, they’re eye wateringly large, so such a bailout would cost a pretty penny or two. Indeed it might prove impossible without some nations defaulting on existing debts in some way first.

So it would be in the energy industry’s own interest to let governments take the lead on this one, with them doing the contract work, etc., if of course we decide to allow drilling (in the EU) which will depend on the outcome of environmental impact studies. Also as a government led program will be less interested in the bottom line, we can look at taking some measures to clean up the process which the gas industry can’t do on when operating on a commercial basis.

And if anyone from Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth is reading this, there’s a very simple way for you to derail the UK Shale Gas industry – start monitoring methane emissions. Start talking to local residents around the proposed drilling areas, get permission to installing monitoring equipment. Better still, start flying planes with sensors over the top of shale gas drilling projects. My suspicion is that in such a scenario, fearful that that the discovery of large methane emissions (or extensive groundwater pollution) might scare off the natives Stateside, that the Gas industry will make up some feeble excuses and quietly pull out of the UK. Given the choice between a bag of money and clean water for his cattle even the dopiest of US ranchers will choose the latter, well unless the Shale gas industry buys him out completely, and they can’ buy out every yokel in the Marcellus shale region, even they aren’t that wealthy! Seriously thought, monitoring emissions would at the very least piss them off no end, so worth a shot.

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in clean energy, climate change, economics, energy, peak oil, power, renewables, sustainability, sustainable. Bookmark the permalink.

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