The Shale Gas Shock
Comment of the Day

December 20 2011

Commentary by David Fuller

The Shale Gas Shock

Eoin actually posted this report by Matt Ridley for The Global Warming Policy Foundation on 3rd October, while I was in the USA for The Contrary Opinion Forum. I read Comment of the day at the time but not the report until today, on seeing that it had been forwarded to me by another subscriber. I am discussing this report to focus on an additional aspect. Here is part of a fascinating section on gas and decarbonisation:
87. The dominant fuel in the world fuel mix has gradually shifted from wood to coal to oil over the past 150 years, with gas the latest fuel to grow rapidly. At this rate gas may overtake oil as the dominant fuel by 2020 or 2030. The consequence of this succession is that the carbon-hydrogen ratio in the world fuel mix has been falling steadily, because the ratio of carbon to hydrogen atoms is about 10-to-1 in wood, 2-to-1 in coal, 1-to-2 in oil and 1-to-4 in gas. On its current trajectory, the average ratio would reach 90% hydrogen in 2060, having been 90% carbon in 1850. Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University describes this phenomenon as follows:

When my colleagues Cesare Marchetti, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Arnulf Grubler and I discovered decarbonisation in the 1980s, we were pleasantly surprised. When we first spoke of decarbonisation, few believed and many ridiculed the word. Everyone 'knew' the opposite to be true. Now prime ministers and presidents speak of decarbonisation. Neither Queen Victoria nor Abraham Lincoln decreed a policy of decarbonisation. Yet, the energy system pursued it. Human societies pursued decarbonisation for 170+ years before anyone noticed. -- Jesse Ausubel, International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, 200764.

88. Consequently, although increased energy use means that carbon dioxide emissions are rising all the time, the world is nonetheless slowly decarbonising. A sudden and forced acceleration of this decarbonisation is what environmentalists and many politicians are demanding in the name of climate change policy. The argument is that the cost of waiting for decarbonisation to happen of its own accord is higher than the cost of replacing existing fuels with low-carbon alternatives.

89. However, few of the low-carbon alternatives are ready to take up the challenge on a scale that can make a difference. Nuclear is too slow and costly to build; wind cannot provide sufficient volume of power or reliability; solar is too expensive; biofuel comes at the expense of hunger and high carbon dioxide emissions. All except nuclear (and to a lesser extent solar) require unacceptably vast land grabs. Diverting 5% of the entire world grain crop into the US ethanol program in 2011 will displace just 0.6% of world oil use65; getting 10% of Denmark's electricity from wind has saved no net carbon emissions (because of the need for inefficient back-up generation).

90. The world would do well to heed the advice of Voltaire and not make the best the enemy of the good. Rapid decarbonisation using renewables is not just expensive and environmentally damaging, it is impossible. However, switching as much power generation from coal to gas as possible, and as much transport fuel from oil to gas as possible, would produce rapid and dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

David Fuller's view Eoin and I have been writing about shale gas since at least August 2008 (the Archive currently lists 107 items on this subject), and have frequently described it as a game changer.

It is also controversial, which is not surprising, since most thinking people have variously feared either the lights going out due to a global energy shortage resulting in a permanent state of economic depression, or something worse caused by manmade global warming. Also, every competing form of energy has its lobbyists, who are often alarmist in promoting their cause, not least many of the political greens.

I suggest that we are all green in terms of our love of nature and a healthy planet. Fullermoney is not complacent about climate change, for which humans are but one of many causes. Nevertheless, in the midst of today's gloom over seemingly insurmountable debt in the west and slow global GDP growth, we remain confident that the world will be awash with affordable energy by the middle of the next decade, if not sooner. Our main concern is that we not compound today's economic problems by tilting at too many windmills and other inefficient and costly forms of energy.

If you did not read The Shale Gas Shock report in October, I commend it to you today. We need not agree within the Collective but we wish to be informed because the great energy debate is far from over. Matt Ridley's report for GWPF is also an extremely good read.

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