Shale Gas Isn't Cleaner Than Coal, Cornell Researchers Say
Comment of the Day

April 15 2011

Commentary by David Fuller

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

This is an interesting article (may require subscription registration, PDF also provided) on a controversial subject by Mike Soraghan for The New York Times. Here is the opening:
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.
The lead author of the study, Robert Howarth, had previously stated the idea that shale gas production emits more greenhouse gases than coal production (ClimateWire, April 2, 2010). But now it is being published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

"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 and is comparable when compared over 100 years," states a pre-publication copy (pdf) of the study, which is slated to be published in the journal Climatic Science and originally obtained by The Hill newspaper.

Howarth and his fellow Cornell professors, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea, found the process of "hydraulic fracturing," which is required to extract gas from shale, emits enough methane to make it dirtier than coal. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is more potent than carbon dioxide but does not last as long in the atmosphere.

But industry representatives disputed numerous points in the study, saying the researchers used unconventional methodologies to reach their conclusion.

"These guys weren't about to let a silly thing like data get in the way of a good story," said Chris Tucker, spokesman for the industry group Energy in Depth, which was founded by drillers to fight federal regulation of fracturing.

David Fuller's view I take this article with a grain of salt. If we are measuring methane, then every living creature on the planet that breaks wind, including you and me gentle reader, if I may be so personal, is a daily threat in terms of climate change.

Seriously, what interests me about this latest wave of energy articles is that the lobbyists are more actively engaged than ever before. Ten and even five years ago the perceived problem was the near impossibility of providing future energy needs in a world of finite resources.

Fortunately, US-led technology has solved the riddle of extracting both shale gas and shale oil reasonably cheaply, in terms of production costs. Consequently, global supplies of recoverable fossil fuels have increased dramatically. And which two countries have the largest supplies of shale gas? It is China and the USA in that order. How about shale oil? It is the USA and China in that order. (See my PowerPoint: Bubbles, Supercycles and the Next Three Big Energy Stories, posted below and also in 'Presentations' above left.)

When we also include coal, both the USA and China should be energy self-sufficient within fifteen years. However, we are talking about fossil fuels which dump far too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, grievously endangering climactic stability, such as it is, according to at least 95 percent of the scientific community.

Of course there is a very efficient clean energy solution, at least in terms of our electricity needs. It is, of course, nuclear power. Just ask the French. Unfortunately, some countries are now moving away from nuclear power because four reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant, with an average age of 40 years, were seriously damaged by a nearby earthquake registering 9 on the Richter scale and the tsunami which followed.

To date, no one has died from radiation leaking from this worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, but lots people have had to be evacuated and the problems of partial meltdowns at the reactors have yet to be contained. This is frightening and very unfortunate. It is also statistically insignificant relative to damage to the environment and human health from CO2 and other emissions caused by fossil fuels.

Today, no economy can do without fossil fuels although we can use them more efficiently and cleanly. It is folly, in my opinion, to turn away from nuclear energy which has killed far fewer people than coal, oil or gas. Meanwhile, to avoid power cuts Germany now has to import electricity produced by France's nuclear power stations. The UK has been in a similar position from time to time, and will be dependent on French electricity in future as our dependence on expensive and unreliable wind farms increases.

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