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New report suggests shale natural gas is worse for climate than coal

Click on the headline (link) for the full text.

Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage.


UPDATE (April 13)

The Hill published an article which linked to a copy of the embargoed report (23-page PDF). The report ("Methane and the Greenhouse-Gas Footprint of Natural Gas from Shale Formations") is due to be published in the journal Climatic Change.
[UPDATE: Link is http://www.springer.com/earth+sciences+and+geography/meteorology+%26+cli... ]





Studies Say Natural Gas Has Its Own Environmental Problems

Tom Zeller Jr., New York Times
Natural gas, with its reputation as a linchpin in the effort to wean the nation off dirtier fossil fuels and reduce global warming, may not be as clean over all as its proponents say.

Even as natural gas production in the United States increases and Washington gives it a warm embrace as a crucial component of America’s energy future, two coming studies try to poke holes in the clean-and-green reputation of natural gas. They suggest that the rush to develop the nation’s vast, unconventional sources of natural gas is logistically impractical and likely to do more to heat up the planet than mining and burning coal.

The problem, the studies suggest, is that planet-warming methane, the chief component of natural gas, is escaping into the atmosphere in far larger quantities than previously thought

... David Hughes, a geoscientist and research fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, an energy and climate research organization in California, used Mr. Howarth’s research as part of a broader look at natural gas as a substitute for coal in electricity generation and oil in transportation.

Mr. Hughes’s full report is scheduled to be released in May, but in a draft version shared with The New York Times, Mr. Hughes suggested that while natural gas would play an important role in the nation’s energy mix, both cases were practical impossibilities.

“I think it’s going to be very challenging, to put it mildly, to ramp up shale gas production by fourfold, which is the federal government’s projection for 2035,” Mr. Hughes said. “I’m not saying it can’t be done, but if it was done, the amount of drilling you’re looking at to make that happen is staggering.”

Mr. Hughes, using Mr. Howarth’s calculations, also concludes that replacing coal with natural gas for base load electricity production will most likely make greenhouse gas emissions worse. It would be better, he argues, to improve energy efficiency, rely on natural gas in niche vehicle markets and balance continued construction of wind and solar power to produce electricity...

“We view his shining a flashlight into this dark closet to be a service,” Mr. Hawkins added, “but the flashlight is still a dim one, and we still can’t see everything in the closet.”
(11 April 2011)
Read the report abstract. -BA



Fugitive Methane Stirs Debate on Natural Gas

Tom Zeller Jr., Green (blog) New York Times
Not surprisingly, a new study suggesting that the greenhouse gas footprint of unconventional natural gas development is far worse than coal is already undergoing a furious deconstruction.

As I write in Tuesday’s Times, Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, concluded in an analysis to be published this week in a peer-reviewed journal, Climatic Change Letters, that somewhere from 3.6 percent to 7.9 percent of methane, the chief component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas, is leaking into the atmosphere at various points along the shale gas production life cycle.

... Energy In Depth, a coalition of independent oil and gas producers, has already offered up a lengthy rebuttal of the Howarth analysis at its Web site.

These include important questions about assumptions the Cornell study made about a metric dubbed “lost and unaccounted-for gas,” or L.U.G. — essentially the difference between the amount of gas collected at the wellhead and the amount that eventually makes it to market.

Also worth considering: the researchers use estimates of transmission methane losses that appear to rely exclusively on long-range data from Russia and Texas. But how relevant are such measurements, the industry critics ask, in new plays like the Marcellus Shale, where the well-to-market pipeline span is just a fraction of the distance?

Fair questions, all. But the real debate over the study, at least in climate circles, is likely to be over time frames.

Keep in mind that while methane doesn’t last in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, it is a far more potent heat trapper than carbon dioxide while it’s around — roughly 25 times more over 100 years.

Over a 20-year time horizon, methane is 72 times more potent a greenhouse gas, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But Mr. Howarth and company took things even further, incorporating data from Drew T. Shindell at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who published a study in 2009 in the journal Science that suggested that the interaction of methane with certain atmospheric aerosols might well amplify the global warming potential of methane — up to 105 times that of carbon dioxide in the 20-year time frame.

... The first step in getting beyond this debate, many environmental advocates argue, is for the industry to stop refusing to take detailed measure of its methane leakage rates, to make that information public, and to submit to rules requiring them to capture it.
(12 April 2011)
Background story by the journalist who wrote the New York's main article on the NG fracking report. -BA



Frack: Is Shale Natural Gas Worse for the Climate Than Coal?

Brian Walsh, Ecocentric (blog), TIME
It's not that the burning of natural gas itself produces more greenhouse gases than the burning of coal. Rather, Howarth and Ingraffea have looked at the total life cycle of shale natural gas production, including the drilling and fracking of wells and the transport of gas, and they found that much of the methane in shale gas production escapes into the atmosphere, instead of being captured and used for fuel. Quite simply, the gas leaks, from pipelines and wells and processors. That's bad news for the climate—methane is the chief component of natural gas, and it is more than 20 times potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Scientists and industry alike have been aware of such fugitive methane emissions, but they were considered relatively minor. Howarth and Ingraffea's work, however, suggests that as much as 7.9% of the methane in a well may escape into the atmosphere—numbers that, if correct, would significantly damage natural gas's position as an environmentally friendly fuel, at least from a climate perspective. (The researchers also include data from a recent study from NASA making the case that methane can interact with aerosol particles in the atmosphere in a way that amplifies methane's warming impact, especially in the short-term.) As Howarth said in a statement:

"The take-home message of our study is that if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil. We are not advocating for more coal or oil, but rather to move to a truly green, renewable future as quickly as possible. We need to look at the true environmental consequences of shale gas."
(x April 2011)



Industry: Five Things to Know about the Cornell Shale Study

Staff, Energy In Depth
Almost year to the day after first attempt to smear shale gas fails, Howarth and crew back at it again in new report set for release this week

Call it an annual rite of spring for the community of Ithaca, N.Y. – finals, farmer’s markets, and the release of bite-sized “studies” by Cornell professors targeting the discovery, development and use of natural gas. Last spring, Prof. Robert Howarth got the ball rolling, putting out a two-page abstract that earned a splashy write-up in Reuters mere minutes after it was released, but one that was withdrawn quickly thereafter owing to basic errors in the professor’s calculations. Turns out, he didn’t know that methane emissions occurred during the production of coal. Pretty big mistake in a paper that’s supposed to be comparing emissions from coal to those from natural gas, isn’t it?

Once bitten but still not shy, Howarth would release two additional abstracts over the next 10 months. The first one, posted soon after the April version was retracted, ratcheted down its rhetoric quite a bit, suggesting only that coal emissions were “probably quite similar” to those from shale gas. Later this week, Howarth and Prof. Anthony Ingraffea, a rock-mechanics specialist, are set to release their latest iteration of the report – but you’ll be hard pressed to find much circumspection in this one. According to the professors: “Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 percent greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon.”

As for the paper itself, it hasn’t even been released yet (we expect a Wednesday publish date) but has still found a way to generate plenty of attention in the press – even nabbing a 27-graph write-up in The New York Times. Against that backdrop, here below: the first five things you need to know about the Cornell report (it probably won’t be the last five):

Thing #1: The study’s conclusions rely almost entirely on the application of a Global Warming Potential (GWP) factor that’s 45 percent higher for natural gas than the one cited by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007.
(11 April 2011)
Website for "America’s natural gas and oil producers." Heavy on the PR, but useful to know what the talking points will be. -BA



Study: Some Natural Gas Threatens Climate More Than Coal

Tennille Tracy, Wall Street Journal
Extracting natural gas from shale formations using hydraulic fracturing generates more greenhouse-gas emissions than burning coal, according to a new study that drew immediate attacks from oil and gas interests already facing pressure from lawmakers and regulators worried about the environmental effects of shale-gas development.

... The study complicates the politics of natural gas at a time when the Obama administration and members of Congress say they want to encourage natural gas production as a way to replace coal and oil in electricity generation and transportation.

Last month, President Barack Obama directed Energy Secretary Steven Chu to find ways to improve the safety of natural-gas production, and praised natural gas as a domestically produced fuel source that could reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil and reduce carbon pollution.

U.S. Senate lawmakers, meanwhile, are in the process of developing a nationwide clean-energy standard after Mr. Obama said he wanted the country to generate 80% of electricity from clean-energy sources by 2035.

The Cornell study "certainly suggests that, if you're going to include natural gas in such a system, you have to get better data and account for these emissions," said Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center.
(11 April 2011)



Shale gas 'worse than coal' for climate

Richard Black, BBC
The new kid on the energy block, shale gas, may be worse in climate change terms than coal, a study concludes.

Drawn from rock through a controversial "fracking" process, some hail the gas as a "stepping stone" to a low-carbon future and a route to energy security.

But US researchers found that shale gas wells leak substantial amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

This makes its climate impact worse than conventional gas, they say - and probably worse than coal as well.

... "We have produced the first comprehensive analysis of the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas," said lead author Robert Howarth from Cornell University in Ithaca, US.

"We have used the best available data [and] the conclusion is that shale gas may indeed be quite damaging to global warming, quite likely as bad or worse than coal," he told BBC News.
(12 April 2011)



Shale Gas Isn't Cleaner Than Coal, Cornell Researchers Say

Mike Soraghan, Greenwire via New York Times
Cornell University researchers say that natural gas pried from shale formations is dirtier than coal in the short term, rather than cleaner, and "comparable" in the long term.

That finding -- fiercely disputed by the gas industry -- undermines the widely stated belief that gas is twice as "clean" as coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. The gas industry has promoted that concept as a way for electric utilities to prepare for climate change regulations by switching from coal-fired plants to gas.

But if both gas and coal are considered plentiful and cheap, utilities would have little incentive to switch.
(11 April 2011)



Study questions clean claims about natural gas

Brett Clanton, Houston Chronicle
Natural gas proponents point out that it burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, but it is dirtier than backers suggest if the calculation includes greenhouse gas emissions from a leading extraction method, according to a new study by scientists at Cornell University.

In fact, the technique called hydraulic fracturing could contribute greatly to emissions of methane and carbon dioxide, making gas dirtier than oil or coal, said Robert Howarth, lead author of the study, a preliminary version of which was posted Monday.

Researchers focused on the methane that escapes into the atmosphere during hydraulic fracturing, which involves forcing millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into a well to break open shales and other dense rock formations and release natural gas.

The study also looks at the indirect emissions from equipment and vehicles used to extract, develop and transport the gas.

The Energy Department predicts that by 2035, domestic production of natural gas will grow by 20 percent, with gas from shales and other unconventional rock formations accounting for 75 percent of the total.
(11 April 2011)

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