Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fracking Myths of Natural Gas - Heinberg & Hughes

Worried about high oil prices and exploding nuclear plants? Carry on shoppers, because we've found gold right under our feet - a bonanza of natural gas. Yes, fracking will fill your tank, heat your house, and light up the streets for another 100 years. At least that's what we've been told.

A new report out from the Post Carbon Institute pokes a sharp pin in the natural gas bubble. We'll hear from energy analyst David Hughes.


But first a return guest to Radio Ecoshock, Richard Heinberg. He woke me up to Peak Oil with his 2003 book "The Party's Over" and helped found a community of alternative thought in 2005 with the book "Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World". We interviewed Richard on the future of coal in the book "Blackout."

Now Richard Heinberg writes a hot introduction to the alleged great age of gas, available online from the Post Carbon Institute.

We catch up with Richard Heinberg in New York, after one of his many public talks.

In fact, Richard was invited by students of Worcester Polytechnic in Massachusetts. They objected to the the grad speaker invited by WP, namely Rex Tillerson the CEO of ExxonMobil - the company funding so much climate change denial. The big oil company working to wreck their climate future.

A group of students asked Richard Heinberg to speak, and Worcester Polytechnic, which I hear receives some ExxonMobil funding, reluctantly agreed to give their stamp of approval to the alternative graduation event as well. I ask Richard what he told the students.

But the main purpose of our chat was to look at the myths and realities of natural gas fracking. It has been touted as the miracle cure for almost everything, including powering the car fleet, and replacing coal as a more climate friendly fuel.

Heinberg points to a new study showing the total life cycle emissions of natural gas is as great as coal. The is partly because of all the energy used in ever-moving drilling platforms, but mainly due to "fugitive" methane emissions coming out of the drilling operations and pipe systems. Methane is many times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

That report came from Robert Howarth at Cornell University, and published in published in the May issue of Climatic Change Letters (105:5). An April 11, 2011 article at the site, titled "Natural Gas fracking could be 'dirtier'
than coal, Cornell professors find" appears to have been removed from the site. However I downloaded the Google cache version.

Here it is:

April 11, 2011


By Stacey Shackford

Extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale could do more to aggravate global warming than mining coal, according to a Cornell study published in the May issue of Climatic Change Letters (105:5).

While natural gas has been touted as a clean-burning fuel that produces less carbon dioxide than coal, ecologist Robert Howarth warns that we should be more concerned about methane leaking into the atmosphere during hydraulic fracturing.

Natural gas is mostly methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas, especially in the short term, with 105 times more warming impact, pound for pound, than carbon dioxide (CO2), Howarth said, adding that even small leaks make a big difference. He estimated that as much as 8 percent of the methane in shale gas leaks into the air
during the lifetime of a hydraulic shale gas well -- up to twice what escapes from conventional gas production.

"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," Howarth said. "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."

Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, Tony Ingraffea, the Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering, and Renee Santoro, a research technician in ecology and evolutionary biology, analyzed data from published sources, industry reports and even Powerpoint presentations from the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA).

They compared estimated emissions for shale gas, conventional gas, coal (surface-mined and deep-mined) and diesel oil, taking into account direct emissions of CO2 during combustion, indirect emissions of CO2 necessary to develop and use the energy source and methane emissions, which were converted to equivalent value of CO2 for
global warming potential.

The study is the first peer-reviewed paper on methane emissions from shale gas, and one of the few exploring the greenhouse gas footprints of conventional gas drilling. Most studies have used EPA emission estimates from 1996, which were updated in November 2010 when it was determined that greenhouse gas emissions of various fuels are higher than previously believed.

"We are highlighting unconventional gas because it is a contemporary problem for us in upstate New York, and because there is a big difference between developing gas from an unconventional well and a conventional well, for the mere reason that unconventional wells are bigger," Ingraffea said.

He noted that the hydraulic fracturing process lends itself to more leakage because it takes more time to drill the well, requires more venting and produces more flowback waste, he said.

"A lot of the data we used are really low quality, but I'm confident they are the best available," Howarth said. "We want to go out into the Marcellus Shale and do micrometeorological fluxes of methane at the time of venting and get a real number on this, which has never been done. We're optimistic we can get funding and do that over the next year."

"We've tried to be conservative all along; we're not trying to be hyperbolic in our statements," Ingraffea said.

"We do not intend for you to accept what we've reported on today as the definitive scientific study in regards to this question. It's clearly not," he added. "What we're hoping to do with this study is to stimulate the science that should have been done before. In my opinion, corporate business plans superseded national energy strategy."

Stacey Shackford is a staff writer in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.


The Post Carbon Institute updated the original study using more recent reports.

Listen to our interview with Richard Heinberg, a leader in not just the Peak Oil movement, but in ways society must move forward in an age of ever-more expensive energy, and scarce resources of all kinds.


Following Richard Heinberg, a speech given by geoscientist David Hughes, the author of the new report "Will Natural Gas Fuel America in the 21st Century?".

Dave studied natural resources for the Geological Survey of Canada for 32 years. Now he's a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, just finishing a speaking tour of cities in Eastern Canada. His overview is packed with information that Presidents, Prime Ministers need to hear. You too.

The original speech went was 1 hour 9 minutes of dense information. In this week's program, we hear selections telling us the realities of natural gas supplies. Why the industry must drill more and more wells, always moving on, to find wells that produce less than earlier wells.

It's a gas decline in slow motion, leaving environmental destruction behind at many sites. The "fracking" method, of packing a secret mix of toxic chemicals deep underground, and then blowing them up into the rock, could poison entire aquifers or even reach back up into the drinking water supplies. Just like nuclear or deep water drilling, all that fracking risk is unseen, until something goes wrong.

It takes 4 newer gas fields to equal one of the older ones. Dave also talks about why Liquid Natural Gas or LNG is so climate unfriendly. Fracking realities. All that. Why estimates of gas supply were overblown by the industry, and then promoted by an uncritical government. The actual production is much different. Now we are coasting on an earlier wave of drilling, says Hughes, but the results cannot replace dwindling oil supplies.

David Hughes spoke to Transition Toronto on Feburary 3rd, 2011. We'll run his assessment of oil and coal supplies (peak is sooner than you think!) in upcoming Radio Ecoshock shows. Then we'll post the whole speech.

Find the new report on natural gas from the Post Carbon Institute here.

Between Richard Heinberg and David Hughes, we play this smart song from Studio 20 NSU with ProPublica:

"My Water's On Fire Tonight (The Fracking Song)"

See the You tube video here.

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