Saturday, March 26, 2016

Rethinking Natural Gas - the Wrong Fuel at the Worst Possible Time

Many people have bought the company line that natural gas is far less damaging environmentally than the alternatives, especially coal. The truth is it's about as bad, maybe worse - a lot worse.’s the unhappy fact about methane: Though it produces only half as much carbon as coal when you burn it, if you don’t—if it escapes into the air before it can be captured in a pipeline, or anywhere else along its route to a power plant or your stove—then it traps heat in the atmosphere much more efficiently than CO2. Howarth and Ingraffea began producing a series of papers claiming that if even a small percentage of the methane leaked—maybe as little as 3 percent—then fracked gas would do more climate damage than coal. And their preliminary data showed that leak rates could be at least that high: that somewhere between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of methane gas from shale-drilling operations actually escapes into the atmosphere.

To say that no one in power wanted to hear this would be an understatement. The two scientists were roundly attacked by the industry; one trade group called their study the “Ivory Tower’s latest fact-free assault on shale gas exploration.” Most of the energy establishment joined in. An MIT team, for instance, had just finished an industry-funded report that found “the environmental impacts of shale development are challenging but manageable”; one of its lead authors, the ur-establishment energy expert Henry Jacoby, described the Cornell research as “very weak.” One of its other authors, Ernest Moniz, would soon become the US secretary of energy; in his nomination hearings in 2013, he lauded the “stunning increase” in natural gas as a “revolution” and pledged to increase its use domestically.

...That’s why last month’s Harvard study came as such a shock. It used satellite data from across the country over a span of more than a decade to demonstrate that US methane emissions had spiked 30 percent since 2002. The EPA had been insisting throughout that period that methane emissions were actually falling, but it was clearly wrong—on a massive scale. In fact, emissions “are substantially higher than we’ve understood,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy admitted in early March. The Harvard study wasn’t designed to show why US methane emissions were growing—in other parts of the world, as new research makes clear, cattle and wetlands seem to be causing emissions to accelerate. But the spike that the satellites recorded coincided almost perfectly with the era when fracking went big-time.

To make matters worse, during the same decade, experts had become steadily more worried about the effects of methane in any quantity on the atmosphere. Everyone agrees that, molecule for molecule, methane traps far more heat than CO2—but exactly how much wasn’t clear. One reason the EPA estimates of America’s greenhouse-gas emissions showed such improvement was because the agency, following standard procedures, was assigning a low value to methane and measuring its impact over a 100-year period. But a methane molecule lasts only a couple of decades in the air, compared with centuries for CO2. That’s good news, in that methane’s effects are transient—and very bad news because that transient but intense effect happens right now, when we’re breaking the back of the planet’s climate. The EPA’s old chemistry and 100-year time frame assigned methane a heating value of 28 to 36 times that of carbon dioxide; a more accurate figure, says Howarth, is between 86 and 105 times the potency of CO2 over the next decade or two.

If you combine Howarth’s estimates of leakage rates and the new standard values for the heat-trapping potential of methane, then the picture of America’s total greenhouse-gas emissions over the last 15 years looks very different: Instead of peaking in 2007 and then trending downward, as the EPA has maintained, our combined emissions of methane and carbon dioxide have gone steadily and sharply up during the Obama years, Howarth says. We closed coal plants and opened methane leaks, and the result is that things have gotten worse.

...Catastrophic blowouts like the recent one at Porter Ranch in California pour a lot of methane into the air, but even these accidents are small compared to the total seeping out from the millions of pipes, welds, joints, and valves across the country—especially the ones connected with fracking operations, which involve exploding rock to make large, leaky pores. A Canadian government team examined the whole process a couple of years ago and came up with despairing conclusions. Consider the cement seals around drill pipes, says Harvard’s Naomi Oreskes, who was a member of the team: “It sounds like it ought to be simple to make a cement seal, but the phrase we finally fixed on is ‘an unresolved engineering challenge.’ The technical problem is that when you pour cement into a well and it solidifies, it shrinks. You can get gaps in the cement. All wells leak.

...One of the nastiest side effects of the fracking boom, in fact, is that the expansion of natural gas has undercut the market for renewables, keeping us from putting up windmills and solar panels at the necessary pace. Joe Romm, a climate analyst at the Center for American Progress, has been tracking the various economic studies more closely than anyone else. Even if you could cut the methane-leakage rates to zero, Romm says, fracked gas (which, remember, still produces 50 percent of the CO2 level emitted by coal when you burn it) would do little to cut the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions because it would displace so much truly clean power.

Hillary, the gas pusher extraordinaire.

There was one oddly reassuring number in the Harvard satellite data: The massive new surge of methane from the United States constituted somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of the global growth in methane emissions this past decade. In other words, the relatively small percentage of the planet’s surface known as the United States accounts for much (if not most) of the spike in atmospheric methane around the world. Another way of saying this is: We were the first to figure out how to frack. In this new century, we’re leading the world into the natural-gas age, just as we poured far more carbon into the 20th-century atmosphere than any other nation. So, thank God, now that we know there’s a problem, we could warn the rest of the planet before it goes down the same path.

Except we’ve been doing exactly the opposite. We’ve become the planet’s salesman for natural gas—and a key player in this scheme could become the next president of the United States. When Hillary Clinton took over the State Department, she set up a special arm, the Bureau of Energy Resources, after close consultation with oil and gas executives. This bureau, with 63 employees, was soon helping sponsor conferences around the world. And much more: Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show that the secretary of state was essentially acting as a broker for the shale-gas industry, twisting the arms of world leaders to make sure US firms got to frack at will.

There are a few promising signs. Clinton has at least tempered her enthusiasm for fracking some in recent debates, listing a series of preconditions she’d insist on before new projects were approved; Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has called for a moratorium on new fracking. But Clinton continues to conflate and confuse the chemistry: Natural gas, she said in a recent position paper, has helped US carbon emissions “reach their lowest level in 20 years.” It appears that many in power would like to carry on the fracking revolution, albeit a tad more carefully.

Oopsie - That's a Cloud of Freedom


Rural said...

Thanks for this Mound, we have certainly been sold the idea that "natural" gas is better than Oil but it would seem that such gas (at least that obtained by fracking is far from "better". Will many folks near fracking operations complaing of gas leaking into their water wells the leakage from the actual gas well is only part of the problem!

The Mound of Sound said...

Hey, Rural. A few years ago I read of testing conducted in older neighbourhoods in Boston. A sophisticated testing device was taken through the streets and detected leaks of gas from pipes that were often generations old underneath streets and sidewalks and alleys. The only way to stop the leaks would be to rip up the infrastructure, tear out the defective pipes and put in a new system but no one, it seemed, wanted to cover the cost. I'm sure the leaks only get worse with each passing year.

astone said...

I read an article at least 7-8 years ago that said exactly the same thing ,but, used New York as an example. Even back then they were saying at least a 10 percent loss. We are well and truly F'd. My family (I have children who are having children) thinks we will just muddle through). No one wants to look at the facts!! My own family, Ostriches all of them !

The Mound of Sound said...

Sounds like you and me and our respective heirs are pretty much in the same boat, astone. I find it hard to fault them for it because they only yearn for the same things, natural and instinctive, that we and all the generations before us pursued.

You and I have never been in the position our children face today. It's a tough conversation to have, far more so for them.

What I've told my eldest is that it's not my decision but theirs. All I want is that they make a genuinely informed decision, an honest decision. I have no right to ask more of that of them.